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Coronavirus disrupts festive season in Afghanistan

Fears of COVID-19 spilling over from Iran put Afghanistan’s fragile healthcare system to test

Shadi Khan Saif   | 09.03.2020
Coronavirus disrupts festive season in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan

Panicked by an expanding novel coronavirus outbreak mainly in neighboring Iran, watchful Afghans are avoiding festive spring picnics and breaking with the deep-rooted tradition of warm greetings.

With each passing day, shockwaves from the spread of the new virus known as COVID-19 are resonating even stronger in the war-ravaged country with its fragile healthcare system after confirming at least three positive cases and over 60 suspected cases -- all linked to Iran. 

Deserted sauna parlors

Normally, downtown Kabul’s posh western quarters are lively and full of young people heading to cafes, markets and more recently to sprawling sauna parlors to enjoy rare relaxed moments in steaming hamams [Turkish baths] and sparkling swimming pools. But for the past couple of weeks, there has been an evident drop in visitors.

“Most of our clients are youth and educated people who are aware of news and current affairs and sensitive [about their health]. Ever since this evil virus arrived in Afghanistan, our business has dropped,” said Ghulam Hussain, manager at a sauna parlors in Kabul.

“Our revenues have dropped significantly, as this is usually the peak of our business season ahead of spring and summer, when the weather gets warmer and visitors drop anyways,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Dark shadows cast over Nevruz 

Afghanistan woke up to face the grim challenge posed by COVID-19 at least three months after the virus was first detected in China in December 2019.

The eminent threat eventually forced Afghan authorities to act when the virus came knocking on the country’s western border with Iran after Tehran announced its first cases in February.

Public Health Minister Ferozuddin Feroz confirmed the first positive case in Afghanistan on Feb. 24.

“There is no need to panic…We strongly advise all Afghans to avoid unnecessary travel to Iran, physical contact or congregations,” he said in a televised news conference.

Afghan health authorities have also advised people not to celebrate the New Year -- the annual spring festival "Nevruz" -- at crowded picnic and public spots.

At this time of the year, picnic goers particularly head to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and neighboring lush green valleys in neighboring provinces to celebrate the arrival of spring.

“About Nevruz, we advise people not to attend mass gatherings. It is better not to attend the festival because there are possibilities of a coronavirus outbreak. We emphasize on not attending the festival," said Feroz.

Fragile health system put to test

In its latest report, the Doctors Without Borders said over 40 years of conflict and instability have left Afghanistan’s economy and infrastructure in ruins and millions dependent on humanitarian assistance.

According to the report, issued on March 5, Afghans today still struggle to get access to healthcare services due to pervasive violence, widespread poverty and a weak public healthcare system.

With its meager resources, the Afghan government has earmarked some $25 million for measures to battle a potential spillover of the virus from Iran and its spread in the country of some 35 million inhabitants.

One 200-bed hospital has been dedicated for it in the capital Kabul, and two more in the provinces of Herat and Nimroz, bordering Iran.

Coinciding with the surge in suspected and positive cases of coronavirus in Iran, the number of Afghans returning from there has also surged phenomenally. According to the country’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, more than 50,000 Afghans returned from Iran in the past two weeks alone.

Still, according to health officials, only a few people are considering the health advisories and taking measures such as wearing masks, frequently washing their hands and parting ways with the deep-rooted tradition of warm greetings -- which usually include a hug and strong handshake among men and kisses on the cheeks followed by a handshake among women.

“The level of awareness is still very low. My people are vulnerably exposed to the virus,” Dr. Nazeer Ahmad, a member of the coronavirus control committee, told Anadolu Agency.

Acknowledging the pressing need for caution, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani had to advise Cabinet ministers last week on parting ways with the tradition, at least for now.

“The first clear need is to change the administration’s culture. Please avoid shaking hands and hugging,” he said during a Cabinet session.

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