KABUL, Afghanistan — By Afghan standards, it's a panic of apocalyptic proportions: A state of emergency has been declared; parents are scaring their children into wearing masks on fear of death and the country’s only pig, in the Kabul zoo, has been in quarantine for months.
This in a country whose people laugh in the face of earthquakes, shrug off suicide bombers and deal daily with war and insurgency. It seems Afghans have been awfully quick to panic at the onset of swine flu.
Ever since Minister of Public Health Mohammad Amin Fatemi declared a state of emergency on Nov. 1, green surgical masks have become a common sight on the streets of all major cities, and those who cannot afford even a few pennies for the paper swath are covering their faces in scarves or handkerchiefs.
“I have sold 2,500 masks in just two days,” said Bismillah, owner of the Rafhat Pharmacy in Herat city. “I usually sell just five or ten. I have raised the price, too — I used to sell them for 5 afghani (10 cents), now I can get 10 (20 cents).”
Small wonder: Fatemi said that as many as 70,000 people could die of the disease — a monstrous figure in a country of 30 million people.
Schools, universities, sports clubs and wedding halls are to be closed for a three-week period, leaving students, body-builders and lovers out of luck.
“I was invited to a wedding last night, but when I got there the place was closed,” grumbled one Kabul resident.
The statistics do not seem to warrant the extreme measures that are being taken, according to health care professionals in Afghanistan. So far 11 people are reported to have died of the H1N1 virus. There are also, according to Fatemi, close to 800 cases of swine flu infection — over half of them in the military.
But in a country where little accurate health information is available to the general public, and where the public health system is underdeveloped and unavailable to many citizens, the news has spread genuine alarm through the population.
“My parents told me if I did not wear a mask I would die,” said 7-year-old Idris, whose entire small face was enveloped in green.
In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, over 3,000 people came to the Department of Public Health in just two days to be tested for the virus. So far doctors have seen no one with any signs or symptoms, not just in Mazar-e-Sharif but anywhere in the north.
This was no consolation to Ahmad Jawad, a pharmacist in Mazar-e-Sharif, who complained that he was more vulnerable because the people coming to his shop were all sick. Speaking through a mask, he said, “I don’t work much these days. I spend most of my time at home, for preventative purposes.”
In Herat, on Afghanistan’s western border, six people have so far been diagnosed with H1N1.
Doctors in the capital, Kabul, are not able to release information, according to Dr. Najibullah, of the Ibn-e-Sina Hospital. “The Ministry of Public Health ordered us not to give out any details,” he said.
But it is unclear whether this is to prevent alarm or to foster it. Reporters from both Afghan and international media have been on the hunt for confirmed cases of swine flu in Kabul, and so far most have been unsuccessful.
The Ministry of Public Health rails at those who claim that the whole campaign is a political plot, but rumors persist that the government reaction is due not so much to H1N1 as to a fear of fallout from Afghanistan’s troubled presidential elections.
The timing was fortuitous: Fatemi announced the closure of public institutions on the day that Hamed Karzai, the incumbent, was declared president by default when his rival withdrew from a scheduled runoff.
Security officials in Kabul and elsewhere were braced for demonstrations or an outbreak of violence, and keeping people at home seemed a good way of countering civil unrest.
“The security chiefs — in the Ministries of the Interior, Defense and National Security — pressured Fatemi to make the announcement,” said a source inside the Ministry of the Interior, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is no swine flu, it’s election flu.”
Some of the more cynical Afghans have taken to calling it the “E2R2” virus — for “second round of elections, second runoff.”
“The government spread the rumor about this flu so that people would not demonstrate against Karzai’s re-election,” said Fazel Ahmad, a resident of Herat Province.
Others, like a doctor in Mazar-e-Sharif, think that the Public Health Minister is just angling for international donations.
“According to our figures, the fatality rate for pneumonia is close to 20 percent. For traffic accidents, it’s about four percent. But nobody is in a panic about those things. For swine flu, it is two percent, with treatment. Why is everybody screaming? This is just a way of attracting funds,” said the doctor.
Abdul Matin is not screaming. This Kabul resident doesn’t even wear a mask.
“I do not look good in a mask,” he said. “And what good would it do? Death is in the hands of God. I am supposed to die, neither masks nor handkerchiefs nor iron walls can protect me.”
But among the general population, alarm is spreading. The country’s only pig, in the Kabul zoo, has been in quarantine for months.
Munir Ahmad, a shopkeeper in Mazar-e-Sharif, is just happy he’s Muslim.
“Swine flu was sent to prove to the kofirs (infidels) that the Koran is true and they should convert to Islam,” he said. “Adultery is prohibited for Muslims. Now we see all these infidels are infected with HIV/AIDS. Eating the meat of pigs is prohibited — and see what has happened. People who eat pig get swine flu. So we should believe in the Koran and stick to its guidelines.”
Mustafa Saber, Latif Sahak and Habiurrahman Ibrahimi contributed to this report.