Afghan officials predict sharp increase in coronavirus cases

The results of 500 random tests carried out in Kabul raise fears of a widespread undetected problem

Volunteers in protective suits prepare to spray disinfectant on passing vehicles to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
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One third of 500 random coronavirus tests carried out in Afghanistan’s capital came back positive, health officials said on Sunday, raising fears of widespread undetected cases in one of the world’s most fragile countries.

The results of the tests in Kabul are concerning, Public Health Ministry spokesman Wahid Mayar said.

Afghanistan has performed only limited testing so far – close to 12,000, with more than 2,700 confirmed infections, in a nation of 36.6 million people.

As more testing becomes available, the country’s infection numbers will likely increase sharply, Mr Mayar said.

He urged residents to stay at home. Kabul and most other cities are in lockdown, but public compliance has not been widespread.

The country's coronavirus death toll is currently 85 but the true figure could also be much higher.

More than 250,000 Afghans returned home from Iran since the beginning of the year, fanning out across their country without being tested or quarantined. Anecdotal reports suggest dozens of people who returned have died from Covid-19.

At a recent briefing, senior government official said 40 people died of the disease in Sarobi district, barely 50 kilometres east of Kabul. The country's health ministry said it could not confirm the deaths.

Afghanistan’s healthcare system, devastated by four decades of war, is woefully unprepared for a major outbreak. It has only 400 ventilators.

Testing in Afghanistan has been sporadic and some of those infected have been hiding their symptoms, in part because of stigma.

In parts of the country, there have been reports of Covid-19 patients being shunned by their neighbours and even refused food from local markets.

The government, which is embroiled in political turmoil, also faced criticism for responding too slowly to the crisis.

The government only recently started testing people in western Herat province, where hundreds of thousands of those who returned from Iran have transited.

Two men claim to have won last year’s Afghan presidential election. US efforts to find a compromise have failed, causing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to threaten to cut $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in aid.

The bickering has also delayed the introduction of a US-Taliban peace deal signed in February to allow Washington to end its longest military engagement and bring more than 12,000 US soldiers home.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced schools and mosques in the country would reopen in some low-risk locations. Schools and universities were shut in late February.

On Sunday, authorities said 47 people died in the preceding 24 hours, the lowest daily toll in two months.

Still, Iran remains among the hardest-hit countries in the Middle East, with more than 97,000 cases and more than 6,200 deaths.

Also on Sunday, the UN children’s agency urged six countries in the Middle East to back special polio and measles vaccination campaigns put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.

About 10.5 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of missing their polio vaccination, Unicef said. About 4.5 million children under the age of 15 could miss their measles vaccinations.

Routine vaccinations for diseases such as rubella and diphtheria continue, but special campaigns for polio and measles were put on hold in some countries because healthcare systems were overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic or governments wanted to avoid crowding at clinics.

The polio campaigns are on hold in Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Iraq, with measles vaccinations suspended in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Djibouti, the agency said.

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities announced Tel Aviv's annual gay pride parade would be postponed, as would similar events in Haifa, Jerusalem and Beersheba.

The event in Tel Aviv, which was scheduled for early June, drew more than 250,000 people last year.