In Afghanistan, coronavirus complicates war and peace

  • >>Mujib Mashal, Asadullah Timory and Najim Rahim, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-03-16 18:09:23 BdST

When the coronavirus began spreading, many Afghans were in denial even after it became an obvious and deadly crisis in neighbouring Iran.

Some touted their piety as a shield — they already washed and prayed five times a day. Others, even some officials, joked that the health system had been so bad, the country already so infested with germs and bacteria, that a new invading virus simply could not make it far.

That denial is crumbling now, as the 21st positive case has been announced in the country. Testing remains extremely limited — only roughly 250 tests have been conducted thus far — so Afghan officials and lawmakers fear that the number of infected is much higher in the absence of capacity to detect and slow the spread of the virus.

Most worrying is that Iran has disregarded the Afghan government’s plea to restrict border crossings, with as many as 15,000 people still crossing into Afghanistan daily. All of the 21 confirmed coronavirus cases in Afghanistan involved travellers who had returned from Iran, according to Wahidullah Mayar, a spokesman for the Afghan health ministry.

The virus is spreading at a time of raging war and a political crisis that has stalled governance in Afghanistan. Impoverished, with its health and nutrient systems gutted by the conflict, the country has always been extremely vulnerable.

The first positive case was reported in Herat province, which shares a large border with Iran and is the main entry point to Afghanistan. Now, six other provinces have also reported cases of the virus, raising fears that infections have spread across the country without containment.

Much of the fear stems from the fact that Afghanistan hasn’t even been able to get the situation in the worst-hit province under control, with medical staff lacking some of the most basic equipment and government officials decrying the continuing flow of people from Iran and the lack of funding.

“We are in a situation where the politicians and even some parts of the government don’t feel how grave the danger is,” Abdul Qayoum Rahimi, Herat’s governor, said on Saturday. “If we don’t start acting, I am afraid there might come a day where we can’t even collect the dead."

Rahimi lamented the fact that his province, at the centre of the concern, still lacked basic funding. The central government, in a meeting chaired by President Ashraf Ghani two weeks ago, announced that it had allocated $25 million for measures to prevent the spread of the virus and that a large share of it would be spent on Herat. But Rahimi said his province had only received $130,000 — and that sum hadn’t officially hit Herat’s accounts yet.

Afghan health workers in protective gears wait to check people during Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani inauguration as president, at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan Mar 9, 2020. REUTERS

Afghan health workers in protective gears wait to check people during Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani inauguration as president, at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan Mar 9, 2020. REUTERS

“We have had to borrow from companies to supply our hospitals,” he said.

In Herat, the doctors at the regional hospital that have dealt with processing the suspected cases said they were simply overwhelmed already. On Sunday, they had no masks until 11am.

“I haven’t gotten close to my own wife and children after I came from work, isolating myself in a room in case I am carrying it since we didn’t have the right equipment,” said one doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing government retaliation. “When we say we are facing a shortage of equipment and that our staff is low, the officials say you can work or you can resign.”

The virus could also derail efforts to start direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

That process was already complicated. For weeks now, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy, has been in Kabul to try to work out a compromise over releasing thousands of Taliban prisoners, which the Afghan government has resisted, and getting the divided Afghan factions to agree on a united negotiating team.

The direct negotiations were scheduled to begin on March 10, with Qatar, Norway, and Germany talked about as likely hosts of the talks. Now, between the ongoing political crisis in Kabul and the advent of travel restrictions around the world because of the coronavirus, it is unclear when the talks could start even if the Afghan government side got back on track.

Ghani’s government had cancelled large gatherings before his planned March 9 inauguration out of a fear of spread of the virus, and has continued that ban since. But thousands were invited to the palace for the oath-taking. Abdullah, a medical doctor who has disputed Ghani’s victory and declared a parallel government, held his own inauguration next door, which was also attended by thousands.

Social distancing is already a difficult task in a deeply communal society where homes often contain several generations of family members.

One patient in Balkh province who had tested positive for the virus even fled the hospital in the middle of the night to return to his family.

“He was afraid of the word ‘quarantine.’ He ripped open the net on the window late at night and escaped to his home, which is in a Taliban area,” said Dr Amin Sherpor, the senior health official leading the efforts against the virus in the province. “Eventually, by phone, we spoke to him and his family and convinced him to return. He is back with us now.”

There were concerns that the US-led military coalition might also be exposed to the virus in Afghanistan.

A US defence official said while any military personnel at risk of flulike symptoms have access to on-base medical care, COVID-19 tests were not available for them in Afghanistan. Samples of anyone with high-risk symptoms would be sent to labs in Germany. A batch of 300 US soldiers who had returned from Afghanistan are being quarantined at Fort Bragg for 14 days, the Army Times reported.

The task of distancing is even harder for soldiers amid a raging war. The Taliban is a guerrilla force, spread in small bands of dozens of fighters. But the Afghan army and police are a regular force distributed in close quarters in bases, barracks, and dining halls of hundreds and thousands. They might be one of the most vulnerable groups, their immune systems weakened by exhaustion and poor diets and hygiene.

Interviews with members of the security forces around the country showed a clear split between what their officers and generals were saying on measures being taken, and what the soldiers were actually seeing. Many senior officials said they had started supplying the barracks with disinfectants, and cancelling large gatherings. The soldiers said they hadn’t seen much beyond simple posters on personal hygiene taped in some barracks.

“How can anyone help us on the front lines? My personnel is busy fighting, surrounded by the enemy. God knows they don’t even know that coronavirus is spreading,” said Maj Gulzar Kohi, who leads the Afghan army unit in a restive district of northern Baghlan province.

Kohi said his fighters had faced constant fire from the Taliban over several days, with the previous night’s battle, which left two of his men dead, lasting until the early hours of the morning.

“Coronavirus be damned,” said the major, who said he hadn’t slept in two days. “I am busy fighting another virus — the Taliban.”


© 2020 New York Times News Service