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SIGAR reports Afghanistan heading for humanitarian disaster due to COVID-19

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(Last Updated On: August 1, 2020)

With limited resources to deal with the spread of COVID-19 in Afghanistan and high poverty levels inhibiting compliance with government-mandated lockdowns, experts have warned that the country is headed for a humanitarian disaster.

As of mid-July, Afghanistan had reached 35,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 1,094 deaths but public-health officials warned that actual cases are likely much higher given the government’s low testing capacity.

In addition, COVID-19 has likely pushed Afghanistan into a recession, overwhelmed the country’s basic health-care system and the numbers infected and dead are likely to be vastly undercounted, a new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) stated this week. 

According to the report, released on Thursday, testing remains limited, but nearly 43 percent of samples were testing positive as of July 15, one of the highest rates in the world.

The overwhelming effect of the virus has, as UNAMA head Deborah Lyons put it, cast “a huge shadow” over Afghan daily life.

According to the report, as of July 15, the number of reported deaths remained low at just 1,094, but this figure may vastly undercount the true toll of the virus as not only has the testing capacity remained limited but many Afghans do not have access to medical facilities.

At the end of June, the Asia Foundation’s country director wrote: “I have been unable to keep track of the growing number of deaths among my own acquaintances, relatives, and friends’ families.”

While the governor of Kabul Mohammad Yaqub Haidari said at a press conference in June that the city’s ambulance service had reported an average of approximately 33 deaths per day.

SIGAR reported that commenting on the lack of an accurate death count, the head of a Kabul-based hospital dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients estimated that roughly 75 percent of those who died at the hospital had not been tested.

The report also stated that available COVID-19 data points to rapid spread with undetected infection.

As of early June, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health could test only 2,000 of the 10,000–20,000 samples received daily, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian-oriented nongovernmental organization.

“Consequently, up to 90 percent of potential cases are not being tested,” the report read. 

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s positivity rate – or the proportion of tests that return a positive result divided by the total number of tests conducted – was nearly 43 percent, as of July 15.

SIGAR stated that this was one of the highest positivity rates in the world, based on data collected by Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and, separately, by the IRC.

Overall, the IRC said, Afghanistan faced a “humanitarian disaster.”

“The potential for disaster is heightened by the probability that the pandemic will have secondary effects on broader health outcomes,” the report stated. 

In addition to this, SIGAR reported that the economic shock of the pandemic – including increased unemployment, food-supply disruptions due to border closures, and rising food prices – has exacerbated Afghans’ food insecurity, already impacted by the ongoing conflict and high poverty levels. 

In May, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a common global scale for classifying the severity and magnitude of food insecurity and malnutrition, warned that about one-third of Afghanistan’s estimated 32.2 million people remain in either a crisis or emergency state of food insecurity and require urgent action.

Another challenge the Afghan government is facing is the lack of public cooperation over public-health recommendations. 

SIGAR stated that although information campaigns have been launched to help curb the spread of the virus, Afghans are increasingly moving about in Kabul. 

Health officials have warned that the public was not paying sufficient attention to the crisis.

Meanwhile, public-health conditions in areas under Taliban control remain unclear, SIGAR reported. 

According to them, the group has released messages and videos as part of a public relations campaign highlighting its COVID-19 response, including enforcing quarantine. 

“Yet, as aid officials have argued, it has been difficult to assess the effectiveness of the Taliban’s actions,” the report stated. 

In addition to this Afghanistan also lacks the medical equipment necessary to treat patients diagnosed with COVID-19. 

SIGAR stated that while the Afghan government approved the purchase of 500 ventilators in April, the country’s hospitals currently have only 300 ventilators to help patients.

“Furthermore, Kabul hospitals have also reported a severe lack of oxygen, resulting in relatives bringing makeshift oxygen balloons to help suffering patients,” the report stated.

The pandemic meanwhile has also had a severe impact on the country’s economy. 

The IMF said that Afghanistan had likely entered a recession, forecasting that Afghanistan’s GDP would contract by three percent in 2020.

Projected economic contraction by other experts ranged from three percent to 10 percent. 

Describing the outlook as “dire,” the World Bank said South Asia would likely experience its worst economic performance in the last four decades and predicted that Afghanistan would be the worst regional performer in 2020, other than the Maldives.

“The pandemic is inflicting severe economic and social damage, with its depth and duration subject to great uncertainty,” the IMF said.

COVID-19

India’s COVID-19 tally surges past 5.4 million mark

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(Last Updated On: September 20, 2020)

India’s COVID-19 infection tally has surged past the 5.4 million mark after adding 92,605 cases in the past 24 hours, the health ministry stated Sunday. 

Every day, since August, the country has recorded the highest single-day caseload in the world. 

According to the health ministry, 1,113 people died of coronavirus in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of deaths to 86,752. 

Infection is surging through the country on a “step-ladder spiral” a government scientist told BBC. 

It took India 170 days to reach the first million cases but only 11 days to reach the last million. 

More than 50 million Indians have been tested so far for the virus, and more than a million samples are being tested daily, BBC reported but stated the country still has one of the lowest testing rates in the world.

According to the report, epidemiologists have said that India’s real infection rates are far higher.

The government’s own antibody tests on a random sample of people nationwide estimated 6.4 million infections in early May, as compared to the recorded case count of 52,000 at that time. 

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COVID-19

India’s COVID-19 infection rate continues to surge, over 5 million cases reported

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(Last Updated On: September 17, 2020)

India reported another record jump in daily coronavirus cases on Thursday with 97,894 new infections in the last 24 hours, after its caseload surged past the five million mark a day earlier, data from the health ministry showed. 

Deaths also increased, with the country recording more than 1,000 deaths every day for the last two weeks.

Coronavirus infections in India surged past five million on Wednesday, with one million active cases reported. 

India’s caseload is closing in on the US, which has reported more than 6.6 million cases and with the infection rate continuing as it is, health officials have warned that it could take just weeks for India to surpass the US. 

In the initial stages of Covid-19, India imposed a strict lockdown, but the virus then hit cities like Mumbai and the capital, Delhi, before surging in smaller cities and rural areas.

Despite the increase, the Indian government has eased restrictions to help the economy recover from the March to June lockdown. 

But as India opened up and people returned to work, the caseload increased drastically. 

In one week alone – last week – 600,000 new cases were added. 

India’s reported number of cases is now more than 5,020,359.

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COVID-19

Korea pledges $1m to help Afghanistan tackle pandemic

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(Last Updated On: September 16, 2020)

The  South Korean embassy in Kabul signed a US$1 million grant with the World Health Organization (WHO) this week to assist in efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan. 

According to WHO, the organization will receive funding to implement the “Strengthening access to quality health care in the most vulnerable population in Afghanistan” project, over a six-month period.

In a joint statement issued by the organizations, WHO said the project is expected to bolster efforts to increase COVID-19 testing across the country through the provision of specimen collection kits for 15 rapid response teams (RRTs), which will enable sample collection from 40,500 people; provision of diagnostic kits to the Ministry of Public Health to cover testing for 50,000 people, and provision of testing consumables for RRTs and laboratory technicians across the country to cover testing needs for at least 10,520 people. 

“The project will also play a critical role in improving awareness about COVID-19 through community-based engagement, targeting 314,900 people across priority regions of the country and building field teams’ capacity to better engage and communicate with communities.” the statement read.

The grant arrangement was signed by the Korean ambassador Zha Hyoung Rhee, and Dr Richard Peeperkorn, WHO Representative for Afghanistan.

Both parties to the agreement emphasized the importance of continued support from the international community to help Afghanistan in its fight against COVID-19.

“While the pandemic does not respect borders when it comes to its negative impacts, there is no denying that those countries which lack in medical infrastructure are more vulnerable,” said Rhee. 

“Considering Korea’s experiences, 3Ts, i.e., testing, tracking, and treatment constitute the major components of an effective response to the pandemic. I sincerely hope that the support from Korea, especially regarding the earliest stage of those response activities, will help mitigate, to a considerable extent, the impact of the pandemic which has been inflicting enormous damage not only on the already dire humanitarian situation but also on the essential socio-economic fabric of Afghanistan,” Rhee added.

More than six months since the onset of the COVID-19 emergency in Afghanistan, cases continue to rise but severe testing restrictions have plagued the country, which already has a fragile health care system. 

As of Monday, 38,772 confirmed cases and 1,425 deaths had been reported. 

Peeperkorn in turn said: “The crisis is far from over.”

He noted the country had gone through a substantial first wave but that everyone needs to be prepared for secondary spikes. 

While Afghanistan’s official COVID-19 toll stands at close to 40,000, the Afghan Health Ministry and WHO stated early last month that they estimate nearly a third of the population – about 10 million people – had already been infected. 

Health Minister Ahmad Jawad Osmani told reporters on August 5 that a survey had been carried out and had been based on antibody tests.

The survey estimated that about 31.5 percent of the population of 32 million had contracted the virus, with the highest infection rate in the capital, Kabul where more than half of the city’s five million people are believed to have been infected.

Afghanistan, which has poor health infrastructure and has been wracked by decades of war, has only limited testing capacity.

But the new “Strengthening access to quality health care in the most vulnerable population in Afghanistan” project is a part of the COVID-19 ONE UN Health Response Plan and is aligned with the overall support that WHO is providing to Afghanistan to address needs related to COVID-19.

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