Afghanistan is struggling to safely absorb the over 271,000 people who have returned from neighbouring Iran and Pakistan since January, at a time when COVID-19 infection rates in the capital are worryingly high.
With almost 2,900 confirmed cases and 90 deaths as of May 05, Afghan officials have emphasized that short of urgent actions, up to 80% of the country’s total population of 35 million could be infected.
The number of confirmed cases suggests that Afghanistan could have one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the world. Furthermore, in recent days, results of a randomized sample of 500 persons in Kabul, a city of between five and seven million people showed an alarming infection rate of 50%.
Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges, IOM is actively responding to COVID-19 in close partnership with the Ministry of Public Health and the WHO with over 100 health staff deployed to border level surveillance, health facility-based interventions and mobile health teams.
A key constraint hindering a meaningful response to the pandemic is the low capacity for testing. Eight testing facilities established since January have a daily capacity of 100-150 tests each. However, there is a significant shortage of trained lab technicians and more testing kits are urgently needed.
Another grave concern is that Afghanistan has extremely limited infrastructure to treat severe cases. Life expectancy is only 50 years for both genders and a high percentage of the population have pre-existing conditions such as TB, HIV-AIDS, malnutrition, cancer and heart and lung diseases, with environmental pollution another major factor in general population health.
“Movement and quarantine restrictions have a limited impact despite being in place countrywide but based on the socio-economic realities in the country – families cannot go for more than a few days without working in order to keep themselves afloat,” explained Nicholas Bishop, Emergency Response Officer with IOM Afghanistan.
“Hence, the out-migration trend back to Iran resumed two weeks where people are desperate to feed their families,”
Social distancing is unfeasible in a country where the average family size is seven and most people live in small, confined, one room homes with poor ventilation.
“In rural areas, there is a major gap in awareness. A recent community perception survey carried out by a grouping of NGOs showing 60 per cent of residents were uninformed about COVID-19,” Bishop added.
Further exacerbating the COVID-19 response is the expansion of the conflict over the past three months where security incidents and lack of access to non-government controlled areas means that there is no testing in over 30 per cent of the country.
“We may be missing the profound impact of the disease in these areas where the international community is receiving multiple requests for support for health care,” Bishop said.
Each year, IOM Afghanistan provided humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of undocumented Afghans returning from Iran. Over 30,000 people have been assisted so far in 2020 through its network of border transit centres.
IOM has appealed for an additional USD five million in financial support from donor partners to scale up lifesaving COVID-19 response actions in Afghanistan. (Source: IOM)