‘God’s punishment’: Muted Nowruz in Afghanistan over coronavirus

A quiet welcome to one of the most important festivals in the South Asian country, which has two dozen COVID-19 cases.

Sultan Agha Shrine in Herat
The Sultan Agha shrine in Herat is a major place for public gatherings during Nowruz [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

Herat, Afghanistan – A small crowd gathers around the rickshaw of Abdulrazaq, a 73-year old-resident of Herat, on Nowruz, the Persian New Year that also marks the first day of spring. Bright rays of sun fall on the man’s white beard as he carries his message to the world through loudspeakers attached to his vehicle.

“God told me through his holy book, Quran, to urge people to refrain from sin. Our bad deeds will be punished. The coronavirus is God’s punishment,” he said.

Every year on Nowruz, one of the most important festivals in Afghanistan, residents in Herat and other cities organise picnics or gather in large numbers around the city’s landmark sites to celebrate the day with their families and friends.

However, Nowruz this year was unusually quiet in Herat due to the coronavirus pandemic, with the city’s popular sites seeing no festivities and even the green areas on the outskirts remaining deserted.

The western Afghanistan city, close to the country’s border with Iran, has been on the front line of the pandemic and saw its first coronavirus case towards the end of February.

Since then, people in the city have mostly kept to their homes. 

Places of worship across world shut down over coronavirus 

Coronavirus in Iran has so far killed more than 1,400 people and infected nearly 20,000, making it the worst-hit country in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, each of the 24 people infected with COVID-19 in Afghanistan arrived in recent weeks from Iran, and each of them had passed through Herat, according to Herat’s Governor Abdul Qayum Rahimi.

While 22 cases might not seem like a crisis, officials fear the real number of infections could be much higher. Every day, thousands of Afghans return from Iran via Herat, escaping the pandemic.

The only certified laboratory that could conduct coronavirus tests is located in Afghan capital, Kabul. It takes time for authorities in Herat to confirm each diagnosis.

While a new laboratory in under construction in Herat, the city is far from ready to confront the looming crisis.

“The coronavirus is not under control, neither in Afghanistan nor in many other countries. Every day, about 11,000 migrants are coming to Herat from Iran, half of whom might be virus carriers,” Rahimi told Al Jazeera.

“Weddings and large gatherings have stopped, hammams [bathhouses] are closed, most governmental departments with a large number of employees have stopped working … we have only kept some of them to provide services. This began a month ago,” he said, adding that all Nowruz celebrations were also cancelled.

‘Most important day’

Guzara district outside Herat city also welcomed Nowruz with empty streets and parks.

Apart from Abdul Qayum, 45-year old psychiatrist from Herat, and his friends playing boule, the only people present in the area were the street vendors, strolling around with products that no one was there to buy.

“Nowruz is one of the most important days in our country because the nature is coming back to life. The government said people should stay home and forget about large Nowruz celebrations this year. People are afraid of the coronavirus and prefer to stay home,” Qayum said.

“We came here to have a small get together. Herat’s nature is so beautiful that we had to celebrate the new year. We’re planning to stay here till the evening, we will prepare some food, eat it together and enjoy our time. There is no coronavirus out in nature.”

The coronavirus panic has also affected the already-fragile Afghan economy. While Nowruz is usually the time when Afghans visit shopping malls and markets around the city in search of new clothes, business had been slow this year.

Shopping mall in herat, afghanistan
Many Afghans avoided visiting shopping malls and stores amid the coronavirus outbreak [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

Edris, a 19-year-old working in a shoe shop in Bazar-e-Malik since he was 13, does not remember such low sales on Nowruz.

“Usually people buy a lot of shoes for Nowruz, but this year because of the coronavirus, they didn’t come to the shop. We have noted a 50 percent drop in sales. It has had a great effect on our business, but we can’t do anything about it,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I am afraid of the coronavirus and I make sure that I wash my hands frequently, use sanitiser and take care of my health. Most of the time I use the mask. But after lunch, I will close the shop and go outside the city to celebrate.”

Shrines empty

The Sultan Agha shrine in central Herat is one of the main destinations for Nowruz festivities. Usually, large crowds gather around the Afghan flag fluttering in the wind and sit at the gravesite in the shrine’s yard.

This year, the shrine’s surroundings were as quiet as the rest of the city.

Some people strolled around the graves in small groups, while others rested under the trees, contemplating the unusual quietness of the holy site.

Among them was Hessam, 25, a dark-haired man who tested negative for coronavirus in recent days.

Hessam came to Sultan Agha shrine to visit the graves of his family members [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

He came to the shrine to visit the graves of his family members and celebrate the new year.

“This year is different from the previous ones. Usually this place is crowded with a 1,000, maybe 1,500 people. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, the shrine is empty,” Hessam told Al Jazeera.

“We have to be concerned about the virus. It is a huge threat to our community. Most people in Herat think this way. Our life is in God’s hands.”

Source: Al Jazeera