By: By: Mohammad Azeem Zmarial
The new disease caused by a novel coronavirus was identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. Despite China’s efforts to contain the virus transmission, the epidemic of coronavirus has expanded. So far, around 20 countries have reported cases of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in their countries. The death toll due to COVID-19 has raised to almost 1400, with almost 65,000 cases of infections as last Friday.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, countries remained committed to the health and well-being of their nationals by evacuating their nationals stranded in the epicenter of the outbreak. India, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran were also among those who evacuated their nationals from Wuhan China.
As the other countries evacuated their nationals, Afghans are still waiting to receive a formal reply from Afghanistan’s government to evacuate or relocate them from the epicenter of the outbreak. There are approximately 45 Afghans including children in the highly quarantined city of Wuhan. Most of them are students living with their families or alone. In their interviews with media outlets, Afghans stranded in Wuhan reports the miserable and deprived situations in the ghost town of Wuhan. According to them, they are under stressful conditions; they lack access to enough food, safe drinking water, and they suffer from mental torture.
What could be the potential reasons that prevent the Ministry of Public Health of Afghanistan and other authorities from taking action?
On February 2, 2019, The Afghan Health Minister holds a media briefing on the novel Coronavirus. He mentioned that the Ministry of Health and the medical team is ready to bring all the Afghan students stranded in Wuhan. They will then undergo the quarantine procedure for 14 days. Nevertheless, he then expressed his fear that evacuating the 45 Afghans from Wuhan to Afghanistan will endanger the lives of the other 30 million Afghans. He also mentioned Pakistan as an example of not evacuating their nationals from Wuhan.
After almost two weeks of showing preparedness for evacuating Afghan students, Afghanistan’s authorities including the Ministry of Public Health has taken no action to evacuate the Afghan students from Wuhan. No action from Afghan authorities could be based on different reasons for which we can assume the following:
First, In addition to confidence in the health system, the Minister of public health’s briefing on novel coronavirus also reflects the inability of the country’s health system to prevent the spread, diagnosis, and treatment of COVID-19 infection in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s health system lacks quarantine facilities and protocols, trained healthcare personnel and medical supplies, and economic burden from other diseases. Spreading the COVID-19 will definitely overburden the current health system in Afghanistan and handling the outbreak would be challenging for the ministry of public health. However, it is also important to remember that, before evacuating the Afghans from Wuhan they undergo screening procedures for COVID-19 infection. Those who pass the screening will be eligible for evacuation.
Second, showing solidarity with China in this dire situation of the COVID-19 outbreak by copying Pakistan’s stance on behalf of their nationals in Wuhan. Pakistan’s government has refused to evacuate their nationals from Wuhan. It is obvious that China and Pakistan share geopolitical interests and Pakistan has been a good ally of China throughout history. However, the case of Afghanistan is different.
To be continued
China had a limited role in the reconstruction and development efforts in Afghanistan after 2002. In addition, high-level Chinese authorities have not visited Afghanistan in the last two decades that show a low level of bilateral relations between Afghanistan and China.
Would it be a wise decision to refuse the evacuation or relocation of Afghan students from Wuhan?
Keeping Afghan students in the epidemic center of COVID-19 is not an appropriate decision at all. World Health Organization does not prefer travel bans. Thus, the government of Afghanistan should consider offering voluntary evacuation requests to those Afghans who pass the screening for COVID-19. Because the situation is quite stressful for Afghan students as they suffer from mental torture. Afghan students have also reported limited access to food and other necessary supplies. On the other hand, the families and relatives of those 45 Afghans are also concerned about their loved ones stranded in Wuhan. It would be morally inappropriate to refuse or delay their evacuation or relocation of the Afghans stranded in Wuhan.
Moreover, the quarantine period for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is 14 days. It means that if people remain asymptomatic in 14 days, then the infection from coronavirus is unlikely. Nevertheless, Afghan students in Wuhan remained quarantined for more than 4 weeks in Wuhan, and they have not shown any symptoms of COVID-19 infection yet. On the other hand, the chances of getting COVID-19 infection will increase if the Afghan students remain longer in the epidemic center of the COVID-19 virus. Therefore, evacuating the students from Wuhan could decrease the chances of COVID-19 infection in Afghan Students; moreover, the health system of China is already been overburdened with new cases of COVID-19 infection. Therefore, treatment and management priorities may also differ if international students get the infection.
Third, it would be morally appropriate if we consider a prompt action in bringing our students from Wuhan to Afghanistan. In case the level of trust and confidence in Afghanistan’s health system remain low for preventing the spread of COVID-19 infection, it would be helpful to consider a third country or another province in China to evacuate or relocate our students from Wuhan for the purposes of additional obligatory quarantine of the students. Some countries have already extended their support for evacuating nationals of other countries as a gesture of good friendship.
For instance, India has evacuated Maldivian students from Wuhan, and Iran assisted in evacuating Iraqi and Syrian nationals along with Iranian nationals from Wuhan.
Author is a Fulbright Alumnus. Dr. Zmarial Kakar has obtained his Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Missouri-Columbia, USA. He has a second master’s degree in Public Health focusing on Comparative Effectiveness Research from the University of Paris-Descartes, France.