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Afghans Brace For Coronavirus As Thousands Return From Iran


Afghan health officials screen people entering Afghanistan from Iran at the border in Herat Province last month.

HERAT, Afghanistan -- Officials in Afghanistan's western province of Herat are bracing for a rise in coronavirus infections, as thousands of Afghans return from neighboring Iran every day.

The provincial Public Health Department told RFE/RL on March 12 that nearly 10,000 Afghans had entered Herat from Iran the previous day alone.

That's a twofold increase from March 9, when local officials said about 4,800 Afghans had crossed the border from Iran in one day.

Afghanistan has so far reported only seven cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

But provincial Governor Abdul Qayum Rahimi said the situation was certain to worsen soon, creating new challenges for the war-torn country. "Increasingly high numbers of people are crossing the border from Iran and we are seriously concerned that [some of them] will bring more coronavirus to Afghanistan," Rahimi told RFE/RL on March 10.

Tehran reported more than 1,000 new cases on March 12, raising the official number of infections in Iran to more than 10,000. But many Iranians say they distrust the figures released by the authorities and believe the Iranian government is grossly underreporting the extent of the outbreak there.

Iran is home to more than 3 million Afghans -- including migrant workers and refugees as well as university and religious students.

Five of Afghanistan's confirmed COVID-19 patients are from Herat. The other two are from the northern province of Samangan. All of the confirmed cases are Afghans who had recently returned from Iran, local officials say.

Bracing For Worse

Afghanistan has deployed small teams of medics who have been screening Afghans who cross the border from Iran into Herat Province. The medics are checking temperatures of returnees and asking if they've had any potential COVID-19 symptoms.

They also are asking returnees whether they've been exposed to an infected person, said Abdul Hakim Tamanna, the head of Heart Province's Public Health Department. Those with high fever or other symptoms are transferred to a special ward at a hospital in the provincial capital.

"We've allocated a special ward with 80 beds for COVID-19 patients, both for the suspected and confirmed cases in isolated sections. But this is not enough," said Muhammad Ibrahim Basem, who oversees the special ward. "The situation is extremely fluid and requires that at least 1,000 beds are ready," Basem told RFE/RL on March 12.

Similar concerns are being voiced in Samangan Province, where two people tested positive earlier this week. "We've been prepared in advance. A hospital ward with 20 beds was prepared for potential COVID-19 patients," Abdul Khalil Musaddiq, head of Samangan Public Health Department, said on March 10.

But Musaddiq warned that Samangan Province did not have the resources to handle an outbreak beyond the hospital's capacity.

Health officials in Herat are calling for Afghanistan's central government to provide equipment for laboratories in provincial regions so that more people can be tested.

Afghanistan, a country of 35 million people, currently has only one laboratory that is able to test for coronavirus. Authorities outside of the Afghan capital must send samples from suspected cases to the laboratory in Kabul for testing.

The Afghan government has allocated $15 million to combat the outbreak. Public Health Minister Ferozuddin Feroz said another $10 million "is in a state of reserve if the unwanted incidents escalate and get out of control."

Low Public Awareness

Provincial authorities in Herat declared an emergency when the first COVID-19 case was confirmed there on February 24. Schools, restaurants, wedding halls, and public baths have been closed and large gatherings are banned.

Officials from Herat's provincial government told RFE/RL on March 12 that the public spaces were unlikely to reopen in the foreseeable future.

Buses and minibuses that carry a large number of passengers have also been banned as part of Herat's effort to contain the virus.

Mosques remain open. But RFE/RL's correspondent in Herat reports that the number of the worshipers has dwindled in recent days.

The war-ravaged country's poor health-care services, as well as low public awareness about health and hygiene, are adding to difficulties in the battle against coronavirus.

One patient last week briefly escaped from the quarantine ward of Herat hospital, sparking concerns that he could contaminate many more people. Hospital officials said the patient was apprehended and isolated. They said those who came in contact with him have been told to take tests and exercise precautions.

Authorities also have launched an extensive coronavirus-awareness campaign through media in recent weeks.

The Education Ministry, meanwhile, has set up a special working group along with public-health authorities to assess the situation in other high-risk regions and decide whether to suspend schools.

Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah with additional reporting by Shapoor Saber of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in Herat
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