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Amid Stigma, Many Afghan Victims of Coronavirus Left Uncounted

Afghan health workers carry the body of a coronavirus victim from the ICU ward at the Afghan-Japan Hospital for Covid-19 patients in Kabul on June 9.

KABUL, Amid limited testing, official figures show that nearly 450 Afghans have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, which has killed some 425,000 people globally in the ongoing pandemic.

But visits to graveyards in Kabul and anecdotal evidence from across the country suggest the real death toll from the highly contagious respiratory infectious disease is likely to be much higher. Many victims of COVID-19 are simply not identified as dying from the disease because of a perceived stigma or other reasons.

Hasmat Fana, 72, an Afghan theater and cinema star, succumbed to COVID-19 last week. He was identified as a victim of the disease after a weeklong treatment at Kabul’s Muhammad Ali Jinnah hospital and was buried with all the appropriate precautions.

“Unfortunately, my father, who served Afghanistan’s theater and cinema for 57 years, was buried today,” his son Masood Fanai told Radio Free Afghanistan. “He was a victim of this despicable disease that is raging across the world now.”

But three hours after Fanai’s burial in a Kabul graveyard on June 4, none of the relatives of the six dead was forthcoming about the cause of their loved ones’ passing.

Social media posts, phone, newspaper, and verbal messages about deaths are equally circumspect, which suggests that many Afghans somehow associate the coronavirus disease with a stigma. The number of such announcements has visibly increased. Most allude to their relatives as having died of the disease he or she had “contracted.”

In the initial days of the pandemic, people sick with the disease had faced a degree of stigma and were shunned because of fears over spreading the disease.

The lack of proper testing plays a role, too. On June 12, Afghanistan had more than 23,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, which is typically spread through respiratory droplets. But in a sign that the country has very high infection rates, the total number of tests stood at 53,700.

“The virus has spread to every Afghan house,” Ahmad Jawad Osmani,
Afghanistan’s acting health minister, warned on June 11. The country’s
fragmentary health services are already struggling to provide medicines, oxygen, and qualified medical staff. Some Afghans are desperate to believe in miracle cures from traditional healers.

Still, many want to hide the fact that their relatives died of the coronavirus.

Officials at the Muhammad Ali Jinnah hospital told Radio Free Afghanistan that on June 3, the day Fanai died, 12 others also died of COVID-19 at their facility.

But many of their relatives refused to attribute their deaths to the disease.
Afghanistan lacks proper death and burial records. But Kabul residents living close to the city’s cemeteries speak of a noticeable uptick in daily burials.

“You can see that the corpses of those dying from the coronavirus are being accompanied by four or five people only,” Saifullah, who lives near the Shuhad-e Salehin cemetery in Kabul, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We see 15 to 20 funerals daily.”

Khushal Nabizada, the director of the Afghan ministry for public health in the
capital, Kabul, says hiding coronavirus victims poses grave risks. He says that while they have identified four cites for burying coronavirus victims, many still prefer to bury them next to their other relatives.

“Without appropriate precautions, this can pose additional dangers,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Many in Afghanistan feel that the coronavirus has already taken hold in their
country. “No statistics, but judging by announcements for funerals coronavirus related death tool runs into dozens daily,” former minister Omar Zakhilwal tweeted on June 10. “Almost half of [my] relatives, friends and people I know have either [contracted and] passed [through the infection] or [are] having it.”

Journalist Bilal Sarwary alluded to a high death toll in the Afghan countryside.

“In my hometown, Khas Kunar, people consider today a good day [because] so far no COVID-19 death,” he tweeted on June 12 about a rural town in the eastern province of Kunar. “This explains the deadly virus tsunami Afghan villages are facing in absence of a functioning health system.”

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Shafi Karimi’s reporting from Kabul.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.