Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

Covid-19 in Afghanistan (2): Herat city between disregard and compliance

S Reza Kazemi 13 min

With around two-thirds of Afghanistan’s confirmed positive Covid-19 cases thus far, the western province of Herat is now known as the path through which the coronavirus spread from neighbouring Iran. But how have residents and government in Herat city, the provincial centre, reacted to the disease in day-to-day life? Based on observations and conversations, AAN researcher Reza Kazemi traces local responses since the first infection was detected in late February 2020. He finds an advising government, a public that has more often ignored than listened to it and a recently-growing solidarity, in a partial lockdown, around an uncertain, but potentially deadly, viral threat.

Herat's usually bustling Badmurghan intersection with most businesses closed on the first day of partial Corona lockdown on 25 March 2020. Photo: Reza Kazemi.

Key data on Covid-19 in Herat province by 29 March (11:00pm)

  • Confirmed cases: 106 (73% of Afghanistan’s 145 cases)
  • Recovered: 2
  • Died: 2
  • Testing capacity: available in Herat city since 19 March 2020
  • Treatment facilities: 200-bed centre for quarantining and treating Covid-19 patients in Shaidayi in the east of the city; a private building converted into a 300-bed hospital in the north of the city; a hajj pilgrimage-related camp turned into a 200-bed hospital in the south of the city and an additional 100-bed hospital under construction in Gazargah (1) in the north of the city
  • Distribution of the disease: Most of those who have tested positive thus far with Covid-19 are returnees, but numbers of locals are reportedly increasing. Of those, most so far are from the city, but some also reportedly from nearby districts such as Ghoryan, Enjil and Guzara.

The Herat Health Directorate states on their Facebook page that, given the large numbers of Covid-19 tests they do in Herat Regional Hospital, including through their mobile teams in the districts, it is difficult to give a breakdown of their statistics beyond positive or negative testing results. Therefore, no breakdown of cases according to gender or age group is available yet. However, on 29 March, such figures were given; Ariana News reported via Twitter that there were 13 men and nine women among the 22 newly tested positive cases in the province.

The coming of the virus

After Covid-19 infections rose in neighbouring Iran around 20 February, many in Afghanistan feared Herat province would soon become the pathway through which the coronavirus would spread into the country. On 22 February, Herat’s provincial government said it would dispatch health teams to the border crossing with Iran and at the airport to screen arrivals and quarantine suspected cases. In practice, this meant checking for fever but not for other symptoms. On 23 February, the government shut the border at Islam Qala crossing but reopened it a day after, mostly under pressure from thousands of Afghans who were stuck in no-man’s-land. Among them were many whose visas had expired or who had little money on them. 

On 24 February, Afghanistan’s first positive Covid-19 case was confirmed in Herat. On the same day, the provincial government convened an emergency committee, which asked all groups and individuals to refrain from holding or taking part in gatherings; tasked the municipality to close all public baths, coffee shops, wedding halls and other places of gathering until further notice; and directed the education directorate to implement similar measures vis-à-vis all educational centres. (Schools and higher education institutions were on winter break until 21 March; on 14 March, they were ordered to remain closed for over a month, until 19 April.)

Compliance with the government directives has varied from the beginning. While most educational centres were closed immediately, other places of social gathering such as public baths and restaurants easily ignored the ban for weeks. “We couldn’t attend our English language course any longer, but places like coffee shops remained open,” said a local student more light-heartedly than complainingly. Some residents, including some educated women, have taken the threat of the virus seriously by spreading awareness about it online and offline and by wearing and distributing protective gloves and face masks, while others have continued to live and work as usual. In one video, young female and male professionals, while advising people to not fear the virus, recommend preventive measures against the spread of the virus and give tips for how to remain sane in isolation, for example by watching comedy movies (see here, the protagonists do not give their names).

Sights of people wearing gloves and face masks and keeping a physical distance with others have therefore contrasted with others, young men in particular, who have continued to observe the normal social protocols of hugging and kissing while greeting each other, going on with their usual daily work and evening socialising in and around the city, especially given the mellow spring weather. 

Those who have taken the virus seriously and those who have not have differed not just in their behaviour but also in their thinking. While some women, in particular, have become increasingly worried about themselves and their children or close older relatives getting infected and falling ill, some, predominantly men, have had the opinion that the virus will not affect Afghans in any or in a hard way, among other things. It is not clear whether this trend is representative for the wider population in the city but the following two quotes represent this variation in behaviour and thinking:

In our family, we’ve stopped going out much unless very much needed to do things we need each day. I’m especially concerned about the health of my kids. I don’t let them go out to play with other kids in the alley. I’m also concerned that if I become sick [with the virus], who will take care of my children? So my husband is now thinking of staying at home more to help take care of our children.

– A woman, Herat city suburbs, February 2020

My friends and I continue getting together and playing volleyball. We play outdoors and it should be fine there. There’s such a scare about this coronavirus in the virtual world especially on Facebook but it won’t affect us Afghans much, not young people like us.

– A man, Herat city, February 2020

Some local businesses have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent draconian lockdown in China. In one case of which this author is aware, a business manufacturing solar panels in a Herat industrial estate came to a halt and laid off its employees because imports from China abruptly stopped. 

Protective equipment like face masks, polyethylene and surgical gloves and hand sanitizers soon became not only more expensive but also scarcer in the marketplace in and around Herat city, causing, among other things, suspicions about possible hoarding. Some people, physicians included, began avoiding contact with those who had fevers and coughs, which may or may not have been the symptoms of a coronavirus infection. In one case the author has been told about, a doctor was seen ordering a client out of his office right after he learned his client had had a cough for two weeks. In another case, a physician called the ambulance to come and transfer a client to the quarantine centre in Herat Regional Hospital after he learned his client had had a fever for several days. A woman whose sister had just returned from a trip to Iran described how their family dealt with her for fear of the virus:

When she came back home, none of us touched her. Of course, we greeted her and were happy that she was back but she went straight upstairs and put herself in self-isolation for ten days or so. She stayed in one room and we took her food and other necessary things. After a while, she began having a dry cough and we were very worried that she might have caught the virus. But we waited. We hesitated whether we should take her to the hospital. After some more days, thank God, she stopped coughing and was all right.

Campaign logo “Stay home – save your and others’ lives”. Source: CORONA Afghanistan.

Getting more serious

From early March onwards, the provincial government intensified its measures aimed at preventing, or tackling, the coronavirus outbreak, particularly after infection cases increased. In addition to measures already under way, on 5 March, the Pilgrimage and Islamic Endowment (Hajj wa Auqaf) Directorate asked locals with symptoms such as fever and colds not to attend collective prayer at mosques. On 7 and 8 March, health teams disinfected the Herat airport in the nearby Guzara district to the south and the money exchange market in the centre of the city. The government also warned that those public places not complying with the closure orders would face “serious action” but it did nothing in practice, at least until 24 March. 

On 12 March, based on an earlier proposal from the centrally-located Herat Regional Hospital, the government transferred all persons quarantined there for confirmed or suspected Covid-19 infection to a paediatric hospital repurposed to quarantine and treat Covid-19 patients in Shaidayi area in the east of the city.

On 14 March, Herat governor Abdul Qayum Rahimi changed his tone, possibly given an increase in infection cases and lack of action from the central government. In a candid press conference, he said money promised from Kabul had not arrived and the provincial government had borrowed from the private sector to equip any existing Covid-19-related health services in Herat while “our politicians were fighting over seats [in Kabul],” a reference to rivalries over the presidency of Afghanistan. He called for unity because “the virus knows no politics” and “people’s lives are at stake.” He warned that given the daily return of about 10,000 Afghans from Iran, which he described as “the centre of the virus” in the region, the provincial government did not have the capacity to handle an outbreak if it happens: “We might, God forbid, end up in a situation where we can’t collect our dead.” Talking to a local TV station, Rahimi said, “If someone is sitting in Kabul, claiming everything is well in Herat – that’s not true. Please don’t do this.”

On 16 March, the provincial government further intensified its anti-coronavirus measures by banning public and shared urban transport, reducing the concentration of people in banks by suspending payment of utility bills, asking older people to stay at home, initiating education services to children on TV and promising a crackdown on hoarding and overpricing, among other things. Ironically, on the same day, out of 55 people under quarantine, 38 people (36 men, two women), one Covid-19 positive and others suspected, broke out of the hospital in Shaidayi. The government vowed to find and bring them back to the hospital. (They were reportedly brought back and some were discharged after testing negative; the infected ones remain in quarantine.) 

Provincial council member Nur Muhammad Haidari criticised the health authorities for not having done “what was needed to create public awareness,” particularly in the rural districts. One doctor who was dispatched to screen arrivals at Herat airport criticised the lack of protective measures for medical personnel when talking to AAN. He said, “When we reached the airport, there was no protective equipment for us. Even face masks and protective gloves were insufficient. The next day, I decided not to go for fear of getting infected myself.” There have also been complaints about the quality of health services for those with or suspected of having Covid-19. A number of citizens, when talking to the media or to AAN, claimed this is the reason why infected people had fled the hospitals.

On 17 March, probably in response to the governor’s frank remarks, President Ashraf Ghani announced the allocation of 400,000,000 afghani (approximately five million USD) to tackle the coronavirus in Herat. On 18 March, the provincial government said the president had also ordered the construction of a special hospital within 20 days (photos here). On the same day, the foundation stone of the planned hospital was laid in Gazargah area in the north of Herat city and the construction work has so far gone on at a high pace, indicating the government means business.

While government appeals to refrain from organising or participating in gatherings continued, large numbers of residents continued to ignore it. This was most vividly on display during the Nawruz festival on 20 March. Many families and individuals went outdoors in and around the city, socialising and celebrating the festivities as if it were a ‘normal’ new year. Even before this, life and business in the city had not differed much from what was described in the previous section.

Around 20 March, the debate about locking down the entire city of Herat increased. It, however, took time for the government to make a final decision. According to Kamran Alizai, the head of Herat provincial council, the government faced two major hurdles: how a full lockdown would impact not only the poor, who would not be able to go on with their lives without paid labour for long, but also the positioning of the available security forces given the resumption of the Taleban attacks (details on security developments after the end of the weeklong reduction in violence in this recent AAN report). 

On 22 March, Minister of Public Health Ferozuddin Feroz recommended that what he called qoyud-e rozgardi (restricted daily movement) be enforced in Herat. He noted, however, that according to a preliminary government assessment, some 100,000 families who depended on daily-wage labour would be affected by such a curfew and that the government had to consider providing them with food and other assistance. On 23 March, some religious authorities declared they were closing mosques and other places of worship to contribute to containing the virus. However, not all mosques have closed, as observed by this author in some parts of the city. It seems the government does not dare to interfere, fearing that stricter enforcement might cause an unnecessary public backlash at this sensitive time.

Enforcing restrictions

On the evening of 24 March, Herat provincial government declared a daytime curfew, initially until 27 March, which was then extended for three more weeks, until 18 April. The aim is to ensure public compliance with the central government’s response to the coronavirus and, in a way, clear the government of its responsibility if the situation further deteriorates.

On the morning of 25 March, the city was less bustling and crowded than usual, at least as this author observed in some neighbourhoods in police districts (PDs) 3 and 4 (see also these two media reports here and here). Subsidiary roads and alleys were almost empty and there were fewer people and cars on main roads. On one main road, shutters of one supermarket were half open, presumably for fear of being noticed and brought down by the police, where a growing number of adult men and women were purchasing food, soap and disinfectants from sellers, some of whom were wearing polyethylene gloves and face masks. Elsewhere, most shops were closed and only bakeries, pharmacies, shops selling local dairy products and butchers’ shops were allowed to open. On subsequent days, more food shops were again open after initial confusion about exactly which businesses were allowed to continue operating. 

The restrictions were enforced through more patrolling by the security forces, especially at intersections such as Bekrabad and Badmurghan in the south of the city according to this author’s observations. In Badmurghan, fewer people and vehicles were moving around and fewer labourers had gathered to look for daily-wage work. Shops or vendors selling vegetables and fruits were closed or absent. A fruit-seller said the police came to them a couple of times to remind them to close their shops and a few that did not were then taken to the provincial police headquarters; they were then released after receiving a reprimand. He and a nearby seller of vegetables, who had just sold potatoes and onions at a price higher than normal behind a closed shop, were worried about their businesses, especially because unsold wares would rot in a few days. In Bekrabad, a Humvee armoured military vehicle was stationed at a corner (it later left) and some police vehicles were moving around with one of them telling shopkeepers through a loudspeaker that if they did not close their shops, police officers would get come and close their businesses.

Between the two aforesaid intersections, a shop refilling gas cylinders was open. “Running shops like mine is as important to people as bakeries, and I don’t overprice as some do in conditions like the one we’re in now,” the shopkeeper said in a conversation with AAN. “But the police could just come at any moment and close down my shop as well. I heard from a relative of mine who works in the security forces that if the [positive Covid-19] incidents reached 150 [in number] in Herat, the police and army would pour onto the streets and make people stay at home by force.” A man whose gas cylinder had just been refilled pointed to some labourers waiting nearby for potential employers:

Look at them! Like them, many live day-to-day. They can’t stay at home and not search for work for several days. If they do, they and their families will be left hungry at home. There must be some help, some support for people in that situation.

A bit further away, a similar observation was made by a rickshaw driver:

The government might also ban us from working. Even if it doesn’t, people won’t get out much these days. We’ll be moving on empty streets, just consuming fuel in our vehicles. Either way, we’ll suffer economically. I might lose some 300 afghani (approximately four US dollars) I make by riding people around daily.

Towards afternoon, some shops opened and more people went out both on foot and by vehicle, as this author observed in the two above-mentioned and the two nearby intersections of Spin Ada and Darb-e Khush farther west.

The daytime curfew has stayed in place without major public opposition so far, apart from a 26 March protest staged by around 150 street vendors in front of the governor’s compound to demand it be rescinded because it has damaged their work. People have generally complied with the enforced restrictions, partly because they have seen the number of infections rise. Several residents told AAN they saw no option but to join hands with the government with one another to prevent an outbreak, especially after the increase in cases of infection.

“Corona is catastrophic if we don’t take it serious”. Government awareness campaign posters on Herat’s Hanzela Badghisi Boulevard. Photo: Reza Kazemi.

Solidarity

Even before the daytime curfew was imposed in Herat, there were signs of social solidarity in the time of the coronavirus. The government, in cooperation with the Herat Chamber of Commerce and Investment, announced a food aid package to around 35,000 vulnerable families. The first phase began on 26 March, during which food and sanitary packages were distributed to about 4,000 families.

In particular, some businesspeople within the Herat Chamber of Commerce and Investment have said they would finance the disinfection of public roads, vehicles and markets; distribute free face masks, soaps and disinfectants to the security forces; put four stories of the Chamber’s building at the disposal of the public health directorate if the situation worsened and contribute to keeping prices at normal rates. In a related gesture of solidarity, because of the economic problems caused by the coronavirus, the owner of two markets in downtown Herat has written off one-month’s rent of his tenants, which reportedly amounts to about 25,000 US dollars.

Other parts of the population have also rolled up their sleeves to do something under the coronavirus conditions. A farmer in Enjil district has decided not to hold the usual ceremony to mark a year since the death of his father but to spend the money on buying and distributing soap among families in need in that district. Some civil society activists and university students have volunteered to wear protective gear and disinfect one public building after another and distribute information brochures to communities in different parts of the city. To help those suffering from anxiety, a group of clinical and other psychologists, both those with teaching and professional experience and those recently graduated, have offered to provide free counselling services to anyone in need by internet, as doing things online is now a practical need, particularly for girls and women who are most vulnerable under isolation. Herat MP Omar Nasir Mujaddedi has asked his counterparts to dedicate 50 per cent of their monthly salaries to combating the virus in the country, including in his province of Herat. Faizi Ghoryani, a former Herat MP, has made a building of his available to the public health directorate, which has converted it into a hospital. On the evening of 26 March, many residents in Herat city took to their rooftops – under an invitation from the hajj and auqaf director, Sayed Muhammad Sherzadi – to shout “Allahu akbar” (Allah is greatest) in order to seek esteghfar(divine forgiveness) and rahayi (rescue) from the virus.

Conclusion

Facing the spread of the coronavirus, Herat’s provincial government was faced with few options to effectively respond, partly because it needed to wait for the central government in Kabul to approve any decisions. On the other hand, no response at all would have opened the government to criticism, at least from those parts of the population that were taking the coronavirus seriously from the beginning. Given the insufficient and inadequate resources at its disposal, the provincial government at least appealed to the city’s residents to prevent and prepare for a potential outbreak and did so in a sensitive manner. It did not create unnecessary social unrest by, for instance, harshly clamping down on those who did not conform to its directives. 

For their part, the local population, with not a few sceptics among them, initially generally ignored the government’s counter-coronavirus measures – such as avoiding gatherings and closing social places – but gradually leaned towards greater compliance and solidarity, especially after they saw the number of infections rise. Relatedly, a recent show of local solidarity between the government, private sector and ordinary people indicates a new determination, not just to fight off the coronavirus, but also to develop a spirit of social harmony under difficult circumstances.

Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Martine van Bijlert

(1) This part of Herat – with its famous shrine for the 11th century Sufi saint Khwaja Abdullah Ansari – is spelled Guzargah or Gozargah in most literature. We here adopt the local pronunciation.

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