Afghan men reject social distancing for religious gathering amid coronavirus

KABUL: Afghan authorities are struggling to implement lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in a province bordering Iran where the outbreak is widening due to an influx of Afghan returnees and men refusing to adhere to social distancing.

Herat, the country’s third largest city and a bustling province in eastern Afghanistan, has reported a high number of coronavirus cases.

The country is grappling with acute shortages of testing facilities at a time when violent clashes between government forces and the Taliban insurgents show no signs of decline.

The medical and security crisis has worsened in the province as thousands of men continue to ignore social distancing rules and attended a mass religious gathering at the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

“We request people to follow the rules but they just don’t listen, the religious preachers are not obeying too,” said Jailani Farhad, a spokesman for Herat’s provincial governor.

Verified photographs and videos shared on social media of the event organised last week on a vacant plot of land highlighted the challenges faced by officials to prevent gatherings organised by powerful religious preachers.

“We request people to take the virus seriously, for God’s sake it is not a joke,” Farhad said.

As of Apr 26, Afghanistan reported 1,531 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, and 50 deaths, but international observers and medics on the ground believe the real number of infections could be much higher.

At least 390 infected people are from Herat province, which recorded eight deaths, with the majority of positive cases found among Afghan returnees from Iran, said health ministry officials in capital city, Kabul.

Up to 2,000 Afghans cross the border from Iran, a global coronavirus hot spot, every day into Herat, where there are just 10 ventilators and at least 10 provincial doctors are already sick from the coronavirus.

The country’s health-care system, hollowed out by decades of war, urgently needs as much as US$2 billion to fight the epidemic and other medical crisis, said a senior western diplomat on condition of anonymity.

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