Nearly 70,000 Afghans return home after fleeing virus-hit Iran
Nearly 70,000 Afghans have returned from virus-hit Iran in the past 20 days, an official said Monday, overwhelming health workers at border crossings and raising fears of a major outbreak in the impoverished country.
They were allowed back in after Kabul reopened land crossings for Afghans wanting to return home - despite having earlier suspended air and ground links over fears of the virus spreading from Iran, one of the world's worst-hit countries.
More health workers and better testing facilities were needed to cope with the increasing number of returnees and avoid a health disaster, warned Jawed Nadim, head of the refugees repatriation department in the western province of Herat, which borders Iran.
Health workers "only ask (returnees) some questions and test their temperature", Nadim told journalists, adding: "This is not enough."
Iran has recorded 853 deaths from the new coronavirus since 19 February, officials said on Monday, appealing for people to stop travelling.
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Countries such as Kuwait and Israel have instituted virtual lockdowns in the face of COVID-19, while religious gatherings have been limited at a time of year ripe with ritual. Others have been slower to act. By Tom Allinson
Iran bearing the brunt: with a high number of deaths and cases, Iran has been a regional epicentre of the outbreak. Several top officials have been infected and there are concerns the number of cases are higher than reported. The government has cancelled Friday prayers but health workers have complained they are under-equipped. Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding
Strict measures in Saudi Arabia: Saudi authorities banned international religious pilgrims early on, leaving the Grand Mosque's Kaaba in Mecca virtually empty. Other measures have involved sanitizing streets and mosques, closing schools and universities, an extensive travel ban and fines of up to 500,000 riyals (€120,000/$133,000) for people hiding health details. It has also locked down the Shia-minority area of Qatif
Egypt restricts travel: in Cairo, hundreds of Egyptians tried to get certificates showing they have a clean bill of health after Saudi Arabia announced new travel regulations. Although Egypt has only detected a low number of cases, more than 100 tourists returning from the country tested positive for the virus. Officials have limited sermons to 15 minutes and cancelled large public gatherings
Israel and West Bank cut off from the world: gatherings of less than 100 are still allowed, leaving visits to the Wailing Wall open. But Israeli authorities have virtually halted air traffic in and out of its territory and tourists are required to self-quarantine. The city of Bethlehem has declared a state of emergency, emptying streets usually teeming ahead of Easter. Israeli researchers have said they are close to finding a COVID-19 cure
Virtual lockdown in Kuwait: as Kuwaitis kept their distance at this makeshift testing centre, the country entered a virtual lockdown, with the entire workforce given a two-week holiday from March 12. All commercial flights have been suspended from Friday on, schools have been closed and gatherings at restaurants, malls and commercial centres have been banned
In Iraq coronavirus fails to dampen protests: Iraq's protest movement has set up its own makeshift disinfection stations to counter the spread of COVID-19. Although Iraq is highly prone to the outbreak due to its proximity and close relations with Iran, protesters have been defiant, saying the government is the virus. Elsewhere authorities have closed major public spaces and religious institutions have cancelled gatherings
Afghanistan has 21 confirmed infections so far, most of them in Herat. But the official number likely understates the scale of the problem due to inadequate testing measures and shoddy health infrastructure in the war-ravaged country.
In a sign of authorities struggling to contain the disease, dozens of people fled the isolation section of a Herat hospital on Monday. They escaped "with the help of their relatives, after beating up the doctors and breaking windows," health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar said, adding the police had been of "no help".
Ebrahim Mohammadi, director of the Herat ambulance service, said 37 people had absconded. Two had tested positive for the COVID-19 illness while results were pending for the rest.
"They were getting impatient because after more than five days their test results still hadn't come," Mohammadi told journalists.
Many Afghans who had gone to Iran to look for work are returning home as the contagion cripples Iran's economy, which was already devastated by U.S. sanctions.
Afghanistan's spring harvest is also drawing workers home, said the International Organisation for Migration. The number of returnees jumped by 106 percent at two border crossings in the first week of March from the previous week, its figures show.
Ninety percent of those returnees came home voluntarily, while the remaining 10 percent were deported, it added.
Herat's governor Abdul Qayum Rahimi last week said Afghanistan needed to act quickly to avoid a spiralling crisis. "With the number of people coming in from Iran (and) entering Afghanistan from several entry points if we don't take any measures now and don't work together... we will witness an even worse situation than Iran," Rahimi said on Saturday.
"I am afraid... (that) a day will come that we won't be able to count the dead bodies," he said.
Returnees told journalists they were tested for coronavirus symptoms - mainly fever - at the border crossing. "The doctors at the border use thermometers to test (for) fever and... are advising us how to protect ourselves from coronavirus", said Malik, a 46-year-old labourer.
Public Health Minister Ferozuddin Feroz announced Monday the government would build a 300-bed facility in Herat to tackle the outbreak. "With that, the capacity of the health facilities in Herat will increase to 1,000 beds," he said. (AFP)