In response to the covid-19 outbreak in iran and the mass return of afghan refugees to afghanistan in february and march 2020, the norwegian afghanistan committee (nac) introduced travel restrictions between regions in afghanistan in late february. One week before the who declared covid-19 a pandemic, nac introduced social distancing, facemasks and additional hand hygiene practices in all our offices and programs.

Afghan returnees

Iran has been home to more than a million afghan refugees for years. When covid-19 started spreading in iran, the iranian government deported hundreds-of-thousands of afghan refugees back to afghanistan. Soon after, on february 24th, the first confirmed case of covid-19 was registered in afghanistan. More than 60,000 afghan refugees returned from pakistan in just three days in march, bringing with them the virus to the northwestern and eastern provinces of afghanistan. Between march and april 2020, the number of cases surged in the northwest, herat in particular, and later in kabul, where residents of herat had fled in panic.

The current toll stands at 33,190 registered positive cases and 890 confirmed deaths. The real numbers are thought to be much, much higher.

Responding to the health crisis

In early february, nac coordinated with the afghan ministry of public health (moph) and distributed awareness materials on covid-19 to our partner communities and projects in badakhshan, faryab, ghazni, kabul, kapisa, khost, nangarhar and paktia provinces.

In late february, nac started implementing strict precautionary measures in all schools, offices, and guesthouses to reduce the spread of covid-19. On march 15th, when the president of afghanistan ordered a temporary closure of all education institutions, nac suspended all education programs and instructed teachers and students to stay at home in quarantine until schools could again be reopened.

When the official lockdown of kabul city was announced on march 28th, nac staff were ordered to work from home using web-based communication platforms.

While nac colleagues working with agriculture continued their work with farmers in badakhshan and ghazni to reduce food insecurity levels, nac health teams conducted awareness raising campaigns on covid-19 throughout kunar, laghman, nangarhar, nuristan and paktia provinces.

On may 2nd, nac signed a contract with the moph for covid-19 emergency response and health system preparedness in paktia province. Since early may, nac has supported the government in establishing a covid-19 isolation ward in gardez, paktia by training 80 technical and 22 support staff. 323 additional healthcare professionals from rural clinics and health stations in paktia were trained, together with 25 community health supervisors and 700 community health workers. The community healthcare workers are on the frontline of the battle against covid-19, as they are responsible for providing basic health information and raising awareness in rural and hard-to-reach communities throughout paktia province.

In late may, nac produced films and awareness raising materials for the deaf community in afghanistan. In collaboration with the afghan national association of the deaf (anad), nac managed to air films in sign language on two national tv channels, the films have also been distributed to all afghan and international ngos working with persons with disabilities in afghanistan.

Responding to the food crisis

While nac health and education colleagues were working on raising awareness on covid-19 prevention and response, nac’s agriculture team distributed seeds to hundreds of female and male farmers in badakhshan and ghazni. The first harvests of vegetables have already helped reduce food insecurity in many rural and hard-to-reach communities.

With support of the un, nac will provide food assistance to more than 7000 income-poor households in hard-to-reach communities in badakhshan province. The support will continue until the farmers can harvest their own wheat, potatoes, and other vegetables in the autumn, so that food will be available during the long winter months. When rebuilding our economies, we must never lose sight of our sisters and brothers in afghanistan. Now, more than ever, they need our solidarity and support.