When the coronavirus pandemic first reached Afghanistan in March, the government struggled to shut down cities and persuade Afghans to wear masks, wash their hands and practice social distancing. The measures were haphazardly enforced for several weeks before citizens began to chafe under the restrictions.
Today, even as public health officials confirm a second deadly virus wave, Covid-19 is an afterthought. Afghans have embraced a culture of denial, where personal priorities triumph over public health experts whose pleas are drowned out by public apathy, skepticism and an enduring belief that Allah determines a believer’s fate.
“The mentality that Trump and his supporters have, it’s exactly the same for the Afghan people,” said Dr. Tariq Ahmad Akbari, until recently the head physician at Kabul’s only infectious disease hospital. “They think Covid is Western propaganda.”
But unlike in the United States, there is no political party or anti-government movement playing down the virus by spreading misinformation. Even the Taliban have distributed personal protection equipment and run public health information programs. They have allowed government health workers into areas they control, the health ministry said.
In cities across the country, people go about their daily lives as if the coronavirus never existed. Afghans cram into buses and taxis, eat shoulder to shoulder indoors in restaurants, pray in mosques, embrace in traditional Afghan greetings and cluster in sprawling bazaars.
On crowded city streets, few people wear masks. Ubiquitous public health posters warning of Covid-19 are routinely mocked as relics of a not-so-distant past when the coronavirus seemed terrifying and indomitable.
Afghans continue to contract the virus and die, but the scale of the epidemic is nearly impossible to measure. The Health Ministry’s reported coronavirus death toll is 2,074, with 50,677 positive cases, but Afghanistan’s testing capacity is severely limited — it has conducted just 180,000 tests since March. Its beleaguered health system cannot always distinguish Covid-19 from other causes of death in a country where disease and violence are endemic.
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