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Afghanistan Flash Update: Daily Brief: COVID-19, No. 22 (30 March 2020)

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Key Messages: UPDATED

• People confirmed to have COVID-19: 145 • Deaths from COVID-19: 4 • Key concerns: Border crossing areas, movement restrictions, testing capacity, commodity prices, strategic messaging and rumour management

Situation Overview: UPDATED

According to Johns Hopkins University data, as of 30 March 735,560 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed and 34,800 deaths have been reported across 177 countries and territories. On 11 March, WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic. Physical distancing measures can help to slow transmission of the virus and reduce the burden on the health system. But to suppress and control epidemics, countries must isolate, test, treat and trace. As the virus spreads in low-income countries, WHO is deeply concerned about the impact it could have on populations with high HIV prevalence, or among malnourished children – the latter being of particular concern in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, 145 people across 17 provinces are now confirmed to have the virus. A newonline dashboard visualising COVID-19 data from the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) can be accessed here. A snapshot from this new platform is shown above. Hirat is still the most affected part of the country with 106 of the confirmed cases. Four people have now died from the virus in Balkh and Hirat Provinces. Contact tracing for the people confirmed with COVID-19 is ongoing. To date, testing has been small scale which may account for the relatively low number of confirmed cases given the high number of people crossing the border from Iran. Reduced community testing and slow turn-around of test results remain critical concerns. As of 29 March, MOPH reported that 1,150 people have been tested since the outbreak began.

There is additional laboratory testing capacity now available in Hirat province which has considerably reduced testing delays. In a press conference held by DoPH and the Nangarhar Provincial Governor on 29 March, it was also announced that a new laboratory has been established for COVID-19 testing in Jalalabad city with capacity to undertake 100 tests in 24 hours. Further plans are in place to establish testing capacity in Mazar-e-sharif.

A number of provinces have instituted measures to limit the exposure of residents to COVID-19. In Kabul and Hirat these include ‘measured lockdowns’ which have resulted in closures of sections of each city and/or limits on the number of people travelling together (see details here). In most of the regions, partial lock-down measures are in place. These include prohibition of or advice against gatherings for weddings and in public spaces including hotels and markets. In the north, Government officials are working for a half-day with all civil servants aged between 58 and 65, as well as those with chronic conditions working from home. Across most of the regions, there is no official restriction on free movement of people. In the centre, south-east and central highlands however, the authorities have ordered the closure of local shops and restaurants, as well as financial service providers (banks and hawala services). Humanitarian partners are particularly concerned about the closure of financial service providers, which is impeding the distribution of much-required cash-based assistance. ES-NFI partners are already reporting challenges in the cash response to the floods as a result.

Humanitarian partners have not reported notable restrictions to their operations in most of these regions.
However, in both Hirat and Kabul, humanitarian partners have intermittently been stopped as they have moved around.

It’s thought that this is mostly the result of unclear messaging or decision-making power at the operational level, and it is expected this will decrease over time as people become more aware of the instructions. In Hirat, the Government has instituted a policy of providing cards for humanitarian vehicles exempting passengers from the movement restrictions. In Kabul, the Ministry of Economy has released two letters (one on 28 March and another on 30 March) stating that humanitarians can and should still be active during this critical time and that the Government had now dedicated staff to support partners who face challenges in their daily operations due to COVID-19-related movement restrictions. The letter provides a telephone number that should be called in such situations. The second letter was widely distributed across various Ministries. The Government’s Emergency Committee for COVID-19 will discuss this issue with the Ministry of Interior, reportedly on 31 March, to articulate an official policy for Kabul.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.