Afghanistan races against time to contain outbreak

Lockdown extended in Kabul, key cities for three more months as Afghanistan battles to stem the spread of coronavirus. (AP)
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Updated 08 June 2020

Afghanistan races against time to contain outbreak

  • Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of positive tests of all the countries where the IRC works

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.”

France backs calls for EU sanctions on Turkey

Updated 19 September 2020

France backs calls for EU sanctions on Turkey

  • Cypriot officials insist the EU shouldn’t set a ‘double standard’ by imposing sanctions against Belarus for alleged voter fraud while avoiding doing so when Turkey carries on its exploration at the expense of EU members

JEDDAH: France on Friday backed Cyprus’ calls for the EU to consider imposing tougher sanctions on Turkey if the Turkish government won’t suspend its search for energy reserves in eastern Mediterranean waters where Cyprus and Greece claim exclusive economic rights.

French Minister for European Affairs Clement Beaune said sanctions should be among the options the 27-member bloc considers employing if Turkey continues to “endanger the security and sovereignty of a member state.”

“But we consider that the union should also be ready to use all the instruments at its disposal, among them one of sanctions, if the situation didn’t evolve positively,” Beaune said after talks with Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides in Nicosia.

A European Parliament resolution has called for sanctions against Turkey unless it showed “sincere cooperation and concrete progress” in defusing tensions with Greece and Cyprus.

Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey and now analyst at Carnegie Europe, said the resolution reflected the views of a democratically elected parliament from across the bloc. “This is not ‘country X against country Y,’ it is the aggregated view of the European Parliament,” he told Arab News.

EU leaders are set to hold a summit in a few days to discuss how to respond to Turkey prospecting in areas of the sea that Greece and Cyprus insist are only theirs to explore.

Turkey triggered a naval stand-off with NATO ally Greece after dispatching a warship-escorted research vessel in a part of the eastern Mediterranean that Greece says is over its continental shelf. Greece deployed its own warship and naval patrols in response.

Greek and Turkish military officers are also holding talks at NATO headquarters to work out ways of ensuring that any standoff at sea doesn’t descend into open conflict.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said Turkey’s withdrawal of its survey ship and warship escorts was a positive step, but that Greece needs to make sure Ankara is sincere.

He said a list of sanctions will be put before EU leaders at next week’s summit and whether they’ll be implemented will depend on Turkey’s actions. “I’m hoping that it won’t become necessary to reach that point,” Dendias said.

Cypriot officials insist the EU shouldn’t set a “double standard” by imposing sanctions against Belarus for alleged voter fraud and police brutality while avoiding doing so when Turkey carries on its exploration at the expense of EU members.

Meanwhile, the EU is set to announce sanctions on Monday against three companies from Turkey, Jordan and Kazakhstan which are accused of violating a UN arms embargo on Libya, diplomats told AFP.