Over the last month, thousands of Afghan migrants have returned to the country from neighbouring Iran, which has been severely impacted by COVID-19. Several returnees have crossed over into the border province of Herat, which has since emerged as Afghanistan’s COVID-19 epicentre. As of 4 April, Afghanistan has reported at least 299 confirmed COVID cases, with 206 cases in Herat. As the situation escalates, Indians in Afghanistan are worried about their safety and are wanting to return home. They are stranded because of the travel restrictions in place—on 17 March, India prohibited flights from Afghanistan. I spoke to several Indian professionals in the country who said they wanted to be evacuated. In addition, Indian doctors told me that there was a shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, at their workplaces.
On 30 March, I spoke to one of at least four Indian doctors working in Herat. He described the ground reality in the province, on the condition of anonymity. “They mostly have fanned out without screening as there are no such arrangements,” he said, referring to the Afghans who returned from COVID-hit Iran. “At the government run provincial hospital here, four doctors have caught the infection. There is hardly any awareness regarding COVID-19 in the general public due to orthodoxy and illiteracy. The country is at the brink of a public health disaster. We’re sitting on a ticking time bomb, which is ready to explode any time. The consequences here would be deadlier than Italy and Iran.”
Afghanistan reported its first case of COVID-19 in late February. According to a report in The Lancet, a medical journal, “A 35-year-old male Afghan shopkeeper visited Qom, Iran, for 1 week beginning 9 February 2020. In Iran, he had contact with employees from the shoe company that supplied his shop. He returned to his home in Herat, Afghanistan, by car on Feb 15, 2020.” After he displayed COVID-related symptoms, he was admitted to a government hospital on 22 February, where he later tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The public health ministry of Afghanistan has estimated that at least one lakh and ten thousand Afghans could die from COVID-19 if serious action is not taken.
Even though a lockdown came into effect in Kabul on 28 March, a report in Afghanistan Times the next day stated, “Many shops are open and cars still commute. Nobody seems to comply by public health orders to self-isolate amid a citywide lockdown.” The health ministry warned that 25 million people in Afghanistan could become infected if they don’t follow the health warnings.
The Indian doctor in Herat noted, “Abdul Qayum Rahimi, the governor of Herat province, recently told press here that the country won’t be able to collect even the bodies if the government did not start acting to check the spread of the disease.” The doctor said that he knew of at least fifteen other Indian doctors working in Afghanistan who are at a risk of getting infected.