Driving up one of Kabul’s many steep hills, dotted with colourfully painted houses and surrounded by the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains, the Afghan capital looks just like any other day.
Children fly kites in the mild spring breeze, families take to their roofs to watch the sunset, bakers light their ovens to make fresh bread.
But go in closer and the city of has changed. The usually traffic-jammed roads are almost empty, playgrounds are left without children, no restaurant is grilling sizzling kebabs by the roadside, and most people who are out wear face masks, their eyes fearful, suspicious.
I usually navigate Kabul by motor scooter, a quick mode of transport on the otherwise busy roads – and now, in the time of coronavirus, a measure to keep the kind of distance that wouldn’t be guaranteed in a taxi.
At least 700 infections have been recorded throughout the country but, if more testing were available, the number would probably rise. The capital has been put on lockdown, with the city’s head of hospitals, Nizamuddin Jalil, saying that “we will enter a critical period in the next three weeks”.
At the Afghan-Japan hospital for communicable diseases, the city’s main coronavirus treatment centre, hundreds of patients arrive every day; most of them are sent home after a short consultation and temperature measurement.
The ministry of public health has warned of a catastrophe as cases rise.
Like most, I stay home as much as I can. But if I want to document the pandemic, I have to venture out. There are measures, of course: gloves, a mask, hand sanitiser. After each assignment, I disinfect my equipment and wash my clothes, always worried that I could be a coronavirus carrier, spreading it to others, especially those willing to have their photos taken or be interviewed.
After covering the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, I swore to never report on infectious diseases again, because – unlike conflict – such work comes with a different underlying fear, of an invisible threat. You can’t run from it easily. Yet reporting on the coronavirus is not a choice for journalists; for most, it’s inevitable.
Visually Kabul is beautiful, intriguing, stunning. A mix of Persian and Islamic architecture, as well as older, mud-brick neighbourhoods, the city’s roads wind themselves through dramatic hills.
People wear colourful dresses; the sun almost always shines. In some areas, life has to continue almost as usual, as food and vegetable markets are allowed to remain open and crowds mingle there.
Namadulli Asad, 48, a construction worker, can’t afford to stay at home and lose his daily pay. Harissa, three, her face covered by a mask, sits on the now empty street every day, begging for food and money with her mother. Asma, also three, lives in a comfortable apartment with her parents, gazing out of the window as her family has quarantined to keep safe. The discrepancies in are vast.
Dr Ahmed Sultani, director of a 1,000-bed drug rehabilitation hospital, roamed Kabul’s streets last week in a full protective suit, getting addicts off the streets and into treatment in the hope of preventing coronavirus from spreading further in some of the most dense neighbourhoods.
“There are about 86,000 drug users here, and we’re hoping to quarantine as many as possible,” he said.
Afghanistan has suffered more than 40 years of war, causing trauma, suffering and deep-seated frustration and engraving violent, unwanted images in people’s minds. Millions fled or died, yet Afghans have preserved their warmth and thirst for life.
In a culture of hospitality, of sharing meals and cups of green tea, the coronavirus demands time away from embraces and open doors, and this has been difficult. The new realities of the pandemic trickle in slowly as infections rise quickly. Keeping physical distance from each other is mostly not observed throughout Kabul.
The hardships Afghanistan has faced are almost innumerable. The pandemic is just another misfortune on an already long list of war, Taliban rule, suicide attacks, targeted killings, earthquakes, floods, poverty, political turmoil.
Yet the country’s people have learned to press on, even in times of deep-seated fear. On weekends, Kabul residents take to the otherwise deserted mountains for hikes and picnics – these days in smaller family units. Many play music, dance or fly their kites. Decades of war haven’t destroyed their kind-hearted spirit; neither will the pandemic.