US locks down embassy in Afghanistan amid Covid-19 surge

At least one dead as more than 100 US embassy staffers quarantine in Kabul

Residents, wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, line up to receive the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. In Afghanistan, where a surge threatens to overwhelm a war-battered health system, 700,000 doses donated by China arrived over the weekend, and within hours, "people were fighting with each other to get to the front of the line," said Health Ministry spokesman Dr. Ghulam Dastigir Nazari. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
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The US embassy in Afghanistan ordered a near complete lockdown on Thursday due to a spike in coronavirus cases among employees.

Already on uncertain footing due to the imminent withdrawal of American forces from the country, the embassy in Kabul ordered remaining staffers into virtual isolation to prevent the spread of Covid-19, which has already killed at least one person, sent 114 into quarantine and forced several people to be medically evacuated.

The embassy said in a notice to employees that almost all group activities, including work meetings and recreational gatherings, are banned because intensive care units at military medical facilities in Afghanistan are at full capacity and the number of cases has forced it to establish temporary Covid-19 wards to care for patients requiring oxygen.

The US embassy said the restrictions would remain in place until the chain of transmission is broken. Those in breach of regulations will be removed from the country on the next available flight.

The notice said 95 per cent of the cases involved people who have not been vaccinated or fully vaccinated against the virus and it urged all staff to take advantage of vaccines available at the embassy.

“We must break the chain of transmission to protect one another and ensure the mission’s ability to carry out the nation’s business,” the acting US ambassador, Ross Wilson, said in the notice.

“Restrictions will continue until the chain of transmission is broken.”

The virus is spiralling out of control in Afghanistan, with cases rising 2,400 per cent in the past month, with hospitals filling up and medical resources quickly running out, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said on Thursday.

More than a third of tests administered last week came back positive, the organisation said.

"Afghanistan is at a crisis point in the battle to contain Covid-19 as hospital beds are full to capacity in the capital Kabul and in many areas," said Nilab Mobarez, acting president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society.

Health authorities on Thursday registered 2,313 positive cases and a record 101 deaths from Covid-19 in the last 24 hours. Officials and experts have said low testing means those official figures are probably a significant undercount.

Major hospitals have closed their doors this week to new Covid-19 patients after an influx of cases left them with a lack of beds and oxygen shortages.

The IFRC said a lack of vaccine access and vaccine hesitancy were exacerbating the situation. Less than 0.5 per cent of Afghans have been fully vaccinated.

“We are all in this together and rely on your co-operation during this difficult time,” Mr Wilson said in the notice. “We can only return to normal operations with the co-operation of everyone.”

The restrictions confine all personnel to their living quarters except to get food alone or to exercise or relax outside by themselves. This requirement bans all sport and personnel must stay at least 20 feet from others unless they are wearing a mask.

Staffing levels at the embassy have already been significantly reduced pending the completion of the withdrawal of US and Nato forces from Afghanistan, which President Joe Biden has ordered complete by the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.