KABUL: The Afghan government will increase its coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing capacity in the next few weeks by setting up more centers, with its five existing facilities only able to test 10 to 20 percent of cases in a day, public health officials told Arab News on Sunday.
It follows a report submitted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) earlier this week which quoted Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health (MPH) in saying that only 2,000 samples out of a pool of up to 20,000 were being tested daily.
“That means up to 90 percent of potentially infected people are not being tested,” excerpts from the report said, adding “at 40 percent, Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of positive tests of all the countries where the IRC works.”
Officials said the onus also lay with members of the public flouting social distancing rules, making it difficult to contain the outbreak.
“We admit that our resources are insufficient but the public disregard for virus restrictions, after nearly two months of lockdown imposed by the government, has led to a drastic rise of COVID-19 cases,” Tawhid Shokohmand, a spokesman for MPH, said.
The IRC said the number of new confirmed cases in Afghanistan “rose by 684 percent in May,” but the country’s extremely low testing capacity means many people are going untested, leaving the war-ravaged nation on the brink of a “humanitarian disaster.”
Shokohmand said Afghanistan “planned to increase the testing capacity in at least five zones in the coming weeks” to be able to deal with the spike.
“In the past few months for example, we only had 200 positive cases from tests conducted on 1,000 patients, while last month, the number went up to 800 positive cases. So we see a two or threefold rise,” he said.
On Sunday, authorities reported 30 new deaths, the highest toll in a single day, taking the toll to 357. In contrast, 791 new infections were registered in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 23,042 cases, Deputy Health Minister Waheed Majrooh said.
He added that while “Afghanistan has yet to reach the virus peak,” the next two months were critical.
“We hope that our countrymen observe the restrictions that we have announced, which is the best and the only treatment to curb the spread of coronavirus,” he told Arab News. “If people continue to ignore social distancing and other related instructions, then I am afraid, every street will see dead bodies.”
A day earlier, the government extended the lockdown in Kabul and a few other major cities for three more months, issuing new guidelines for citizens to follow.
According to the latest measures, citizens must wear a face mask in public places at all times, maintain a 2-meter social distance, avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, disinfect all workplaces, and ensure older people stay at home.
Additionally, all schools, universities, higher education institutes, restaurants, parks, sports complexes and other public places will remain closed for three months, while public transport facilities, such as buses, will not be allowed to ply between cities, either.
Torek Farhadi, an adviser to former president Hamid Karzai, said that poverty and the government’s inability to provide a substitute for livelihood had pushed people to ignore the lockdown restrictions.
“All that the governor is doing is telling people to be careful, (but) not helping people with a livelihood,” Farhadi said.
He criticized the government’s move to replace Health Minister Ferozuddin Feroz with Ahmad Jawad Osmani on Thursday, reasoning that the decision was taken at a highly critical time when the pandemic was “spreading faster in society”.Shokohmand, for his part, said public flouting of the lockdown could make matters worse.“Sadly, because of economic reasons and the extended lockdown, people no longer seem to be observing the restrictions which are the main reasons for the increase in virus cases,” Shokohmand said.
Afghans have become increasingly poor, with 54 percent of the population earning less than $1.90 a day in 2019 and, as the UN noted in a statement on Thursday: “With a fragile health system, a developing economy and underlying vulnerabilities, the people of Afghanistan are facing extreme consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic.”