Women and men gathering outside Mosala in western Kabul to receive aid packages

Covid-19 crisis requires collective efforts and long-term planning

As the fatal pandemic coronavirus reached Afghanistan, a country of nearly 36 million population, the Afghan government launched an awareness campaign, asking people to wash their hands, avoid unnecessary movements and stay at home. The government strategy, however, seems unlikely to be put into effect as majority of the country’s urban population are dependent on daily wages and self-isolation is not practical in their daily real life. In Kabul, a capital with an estimated six million population, many poor families broke the lockdown in the first week of quarantine period.

Does the lockdown strategy help restrict public movement in an overpopulated Kabul city? What if, when poor population cannot stay home? What are social consequences of crisis brought by the outbreak of Covid-19? Kabul Now’s Mokhtar Yasa and Fatema Hosseini, in this story, explore consequences of Covid-19 crisis in parts of the capital Kabul.

In Kabul, majority of the population do not have access to healthcare, clean drinking water and enough food. For poor families, a threat of starvation becomes imminent when their breadwinners cannot afford to feed their big families. Under a loosely implemented lockdown, the western neighborhood of Kabul is calm but desperate vendors and porters restlessly follow passing cars. A number of population desperately seek aid, rushing to everyone they think may list their names for aid packages.    

“I personally buried a 7-year-old girl, who starved to death. She belonged to a family of 11-members,” says Mawlawi Fazlullah, 42, who is imam at a mosque in Barikap refugee camp, in north of Kabul.  The area’s residents have provided the victim’s family with a little food ingredients which can roughly support them for a few days, Fazlullah says.  

According to Afghanistan Multidimensional Poverty Index, over half (51.7 percent) of the country’s population live in poverty. The country’s economy is largely dependent on foreign aid. A $1 billion cut in US aid forced the Afghan government to take austerity measures in dwindling defense budgets.   

In Barikap, a remote neighborhood in north of Kabul, over 500 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) families are sheltered in two separate settlements. Majority of these people have lost their jobs since the onset of lockdown. With having lost their 150-250 afghanis daily income—earned by a single breadwinner for a family—they are now struggling to survive.

Durkhan Ahmadzai, 38, is the only breadwinner in his 20-member-family. “The government instructs people to stay indoors but it does not care whether or not the people can survive hunger,” he complained while standing in a queue to receive hygiene bag donated by the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Mawlawi Fazlullah, who represents Ahmadzi settlement which houses around 260 families, calls on elders among the IDP community to raise the public awareness about the COVID-19 pandemic as he hears about coronavirus on social media and radio.

“I shared my knowledge—that I learned mostly from social media and radio—with people in mass prayers on Fridays and via loud speaker of the mosque,” he said while pointing to the mosque which was under construction with no roof yet.

Most social ceremonies banned

Fearing spread of coronavirus and following the instructions by the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH), most of social gatherings including wedding ceremonies are temporarily banned. But the case is different when it comes to religious ceremonies, particularly Friday prayers held by followers of two major sects of Islam, Shia and Sunni.

Majority of the IDPs, including Mawlawi Fazlullah, who live in the settlements are Sunni. They attend Friday prayers regularly while observing the required social distance inside mosque.

In the western Kabul, a predominantly Shia-populated area, Friday prayers are banned, says Ali Atayee who is in charge of public relation at office of Ayatullah Ishaq Fayyaz, a Shia senior cleric or Marja.

Just two weeks ago, Durkhan’s uncle, who was in his 60s, passed away in Barikap camp. Almost all his relatives and the imam of mosque attended his funeral ceremony. Those who were interviewed, however, are convinced that his death was not caused by the virus.  “There is no [patient infected] by coronavirus in this locality,” Durkhan said.

Mawlawi Fazlullah is advising a man about Covid-19 outbreak outside a mosque in Barikap neighborhood of Kabul

Awareness campaign, lack of health facilities, vulnerability  

There is no medical center and health equipment in the camp. The nearest private medical center takes at least an hour drive from the camp. “A few days ago, a pregnant mother got severely ill and before she reached the health center, her baby died,” said Mawlawi Fazlullah.

Though the IDPs were lined up in a relatively ordered queue in Ahmadzai settlement thanks to the presence of Mawlawi Fazlullah who constantly tried to put them in order. IDPs in another settlement were less ordered to observe social distance despite being informed to observe it.  

Assadullah Pardesi, 65, who dragged out his hygiene bag in a crowd of people, sat in a corner for interview. According to him, they are very cautious regarding those who make a comeback to the neighborhood, especially those who return from Iran. One of his neighbor’s son, who had returned from Iran, was forced to leave the area after he was asked for his health approval: “I told him that if you do not bring us the [approval] document, I’ll call and introduce you to the health ministry,” the elderly man said, adding that the new comer left the area for Kabul and has not shown up yet.

Although the IDPs were well informed about the coronavirus and preemptive measures through radio, mobile, and mosque, they are yet to get accustomed to the practice of observing social distance.

“Corona is a virus which makes people sick,” said the 14-year-old Zia Wali, repeating the same as many other IDPs that they have to wash their hands with soap, stay away from people, and avoid shaking hands or giving hugs in a bid to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

Though the Afghan government continue to raise public awareness about the pandemic virus, density of population particularly in IDP camps and lack of health care make people vulnerable to the COVID-19.      

IDPs are waiting to receive hygiene kits outside NRC distribution center in Barikap, Kabul

Extreme poverty, desperate aid seekers

While the health sector insist people to contain the spread of virus by washing hands with soap, wearing mask and gloves, most population of Kabul cannot afford wearing mask. A single household of seven members would need an approximately 7,000 afghanis to survive a month in a normal time. Under lockdown, when the city’s major businesses are closed, money circulation is down. Poor families, who live on daily wages, can barely afford to feed themselves. The bulk of financial burden brought by lockdown is obvious when one visits mosques where desperate aid seekers rush to receive aid nowadays.                    

“I use soil instead of soap to wash my hands. I cannot afford buying soap or hand sanitizer,” says 45-year-old Mir Alam, an IDP in Barikap camp.

A huge crowd of laborers, wheelbarrows in their hands, wait outside Shahid Mazari Mosala, in Barchi neighborhood, almost every day. Aid seekers circle anyone who approach them, think that the person may list their names for aid supplies.

Haji Ewaz Khodadadi, 76, who is a guard for Mosala e Shahid Mazari—where aid packages are being distributed these days—says, “this has been the third time that aid by private organizations and government were distributed to needy families here.”

But people, who were waiting outside the gate, complained that aid packages were not given to needy people, claiming “some people received aid three times and sold them out.”

The 50-year-old Fawzia, who lives in PD13 area, says her husband was martyred, leaving six young children behind. “I used to work at a women bakery, it was closed after lockdown. I have no money and food left at home,” she says, wiping her tears rolling down her face.

Fawzia complains that government aid packages are not distributed fairly. She says the mullah at mosque refused to list her name for aid relief because she did not contribute money in building of the mosque. “If I had money, I wouldn’t be here seeking aid,” she complained.

Mahram Ali, 40, who is the only breadwinner of a six-member-family, says his name listed eight times but in vain.

The threat of an imminent starvation to these desperate aid seekers is palpable. When asked if they knew how fatal Covid-19 outbreak was, many aid seekers said they were fearing hunger more than outbreak of coronavirus.

People risk their lives and come to Mosala for they cannot see their family members starve, said Mahram Ali, who had come to receive aid package.

Religious institutions, social welfare program

In a predominantly Muslim country religious institutions collect Zakat. The institutions play a significant role with regard to collection of Zakat and redistribution of it.  

When the senior Shia cleric’s office in charge, Ali Atayee, was asked if they had any social welfare program in the fight against Covid-19 crisis, he argued that if the god has created a “mouth to eat”, he certainly has thought about how to feed it as well. “People come here every day. The guards repeatedly tell them we do not have [aid distribution] program for now, but they don’t listen” he added, recommending the poor people to tolerate such turbulent times.

“They do not care about poor people,” one of the five women was repeating the sentence with a loud voice while sitting in front of Ayatullah Fayyaz office.

On public awareness campaign, Mr. Atayee said that the Shia scholar has issued a new fatwa at the beginning of lockdown in Afghanistan, instructing the people that it was “a must” to follow instructions issued by the MoPH. According to him, senior religious scholars have been assigned in Kabul, Mazar, Herat, Ghazni, Bamyan, Daikundi, and other provinces to transfer Ayatullah Fayyaz message to all Muslims.

Based on his account, the Shia marja has supplied basic food materials to nearly 1,000 poor families only in Kabul during the lockdown period.  He explained that the distribution was carried out in a safe and secure way and the needy people were identified through local community councils in their respective mosques. As he noted, the Shia marja has also distributed rations in Herat, Mazar, Bamyan, Daikundi, and Ghazni provinces.

Community donations, solidarity programs

To cope with the devastating impact of the coronavirus outbreak, some solidarity programs run on community donations, have been initiated in Kabul and other provinces. From a nationwide solidarity campaign initiated by the Daily Etilaatroz to reduce house rents for tenants—later joined by the Moby Group—to Kocha Ba Kocha online fund raising campaign, young volunteers came together to fight the economic impact of the pandemic disease.

Qader Kazimizada is a volunteer who dedicates his time to coordinate and raise funds to provide basic food materials for families in need. Kazimizada is a core managing member of a small community council consists of over 70 families in the western neighborhood of Kabul.

Mr. Kazimizada says they have supplied aid packages –which includes wheat flour, cooking oil, and hygiene kits—to 28 families who were in dire need of food.

“I strongly believe in humanity,” Kazimizada said when asked what was the driving force behind his efforts to assist the people in need.

Collective efforts, national solidarity are required

Afghanistan is facing a difficult time. The fatal Covid-19 needs an urgent action and collective effort. The government should make long-term planning to provide a responsive healthcare services. The nation, too, need to wake up and put a collective effort behind a national campaign against the pandemic. Social solidarity campaigns initiated by individuals or group are helpful to some extent but are not adequate enough to manage Covi-19 crisis at this critical time.