June 24, 2020 / 12:07 AM / 2 months ago

Hunger or coronavirus? In fast-growing Kabul, poor Afghans dice with death

KABUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Shir Jan came to Kabul 10 years ago, excited by the Afghan capital’s modern buildings, many lights and the promise of a better life - but none of his dreams have materialised and the new coronavirus pandemic has reduced him to a beggar.

Like many others, Shir and his children now beg for money and food and scavenge for plastic to fuel their small cooking stove as the outbreak has led to widespread layoffs, including on construction sites where he earned 150 Afghani ($1.95) a day.

“We escaped the war in our province, but we have neither found safety nor money,” said Shir, 40, who lives with his two wives and eight children in an informal settlement in Kabul’s Karte Naw neighbourhood.

“We can’t even afford transportation to the main hospital that is treating the coronavirus. I pray this disease won’t kill us, but I am afraid poverty might,” said Shir, from eastern Laghman Province.

Afghanistan has about 30,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 600 deaths, according to a tally by the Johns Hopkins University, although the number of infections among its 37 million people is likely to be higher, given limited testing.

Beset by decades of conflict, a weak healthcare system and high rates of malnutrition, Afghanistan has urged people to respect social distancing to avoid the virus but few in the teeming markets of Kabul have been seen following instructions.

“Every time we go out, we risk getting infected but we’re left with no choice,” said Gul, 35, one of Shir’s wives, standing in front of a piece of cloth acting as a door to her small mud home.

“Our basic needs, like a toilet, water and electricity are not provided, and we even scramble for food,” she said, as electricity pylons towered above her crumbly walls, serving brightly-lit apartments in the distance.

While the wealthy can stay home to decrease infection risks, Shir’s family share a public water pump and bathroom facilities with their neighbours, next to a busy road where bombs occasionally target passing officials in armoured vehicles.

“Some people, who have the means to do so, take lockdown restrictions more seriously,” Qadir Qadir, director of policy and planning in the ministry of public health, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But half of the city is poor and many live below the poverty line. They depend on a daily income.”

PLANS ON HOLD

Urban poverty has long been an issue in rapidly-growing Kabul, where 28% of people - some 2.2 million - fall below the poverty line of 70 Afghani ($0.91) a day, UN-Habitat data shows.

An influx of displaced people, refugees returning home, rural migrants and natural population growth have made the provision of decent housing a major challenge.

Afghanistan has one of the world’s fastest urban growth rates. By 2060, 15 million Afghans will live in cities - up from the current 8 million, according to UN-Habitat.

Amid a push for peace talks to end 18 years of conflict since the U.S.-led ousting of the Taliban, Kabul residents and authorities have been repairing historic homes, clearing roads and upgrading informal settlements.

“The majority of the city - over 70% - is unplanned, with some areas barely accessible by car,” said Kabul’s mayor Daoud Sultanzoy, who aimed to hire hundreds of people this year to upgrade sidewalks and provide electricity to parts of the city.

But the scheme has been upended by the coronavirus.

“Construction plans are on hold; maintenance and repair is delayed. Instead of hiring, the municipality is now donating over 3 million pieces of bread every day to help families get through,” said Sultanzoy.

Sultanzoy predicts that the pandemic - and the economic crisis brought by lockdown restrictions since March - will push thousands more of the city’s residents into hardship.

“Oftentimes, families depend on a daily-earned income through casual labour, of which less is available now,” he said.

SAFE

In western Kabul, an informal settlement in the Dasht-eBarchi neighbourhood, much of which was farmland a few decades ago, offers a more positive vision of the future for the city.

While poor, the area has its perks, said 23-year-old Murtaza Ali, who bought land here as land tenures have increased, along with other residents from a variety of ethnic groups.

Last year, sporadically available electricity was introduced, drawing more families. They hope eventually to be connected by a tarmac road to the city centre, with work already underway in neighbouring communities.

“It’s developing and formalising slowly,” said Ali, a teacher who came to Kabul as a teenager.

Most importantly, Ali’s small community on the outskirts of the city is safer than the rest of Dasht-eBarchi, which sees frequent violence.

But it is not safe from the risk of coronavirus infection or the economic hardships it brings.

“Families here live in tight and crowded spaces,” said Ali, who has not been paid since schools officially closed in March and will not return to work until September.

“The circumstances and people’s needs almost trump coronavirus precautionary suggestions.”

Many men in his neighbourhood work as labourers on the many projects to rebuild Kabul after four decades of war, from paving roads and installing drainage to renovating parks - but this work has dried up.

Across the city, people rely on aid and have queued for bread distributions, although these schemes have also slowed.

Some long-term Kabul residents say they have not witnessed such high rates of urban poverty for two decades.

“The lines of beggars and people in need are getting longer and longer,” said Behzad Ghyasi, operations manager for the Relief and Emergency Fund for Afghanistan, a local initiative helping families hit by the economic impact of the coronavirus.

“Most of the fundraisers and the distribution of food has stopped ... what’s scary is that the effects of the pandemic - and the levels of poverty - will outlast the aid that’s been offered.”

($1 = 77.1000 afghanis)

Reporting by Stefanie Glinski, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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