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Stay or go? An international aid worker’s coronavirus dilemma

‘We generated paperwork while the virus and fear slowly spread.’

People organise supplies during a World Food Programme distribution for displaced people in Badghis province in May 2019. Border closures and coronavirus fears pushed market food prices up in Afghanistan in March 2020. (Stefanie Glinski/TNH)

The departure lounge at Kabul airport was subdued; the usual bustle, anticipation, and chatter replaced by a tense silence. No one was going on holiday. There was one middle-class Afghan family, three men who looked like businessmen, and a few others of different nationalities I assumed to be humanitarian aid workers like myself. 

I wondered if they were told to evacuate – or if they, like me, asked to leave while others stayed behind.

I’m among the countless international aid workers in crisis zones around the world who have been forced to make an impossible decision as the coronavirus pandemic grows. Do we follow the humanitarian imperative and “stay and deliver” despite the risks? I have chosen to follow another principle: “do no harm”. 

I left on one of the last flights leaving Kabul. My organisation and many of my colleagues are staying behind. Time will tell if I made the right decision.

The last weeks feel like a dream – or a nightmare – as fear has spiralled and translated into curfews and border closures across a world I no longer recognise.

A few short weeks ago, I was doing my job with the Norwegian Refugee Council. Since then, I have been trying to stave off the realisation of what the coronavirus will mean for a country like Afghanistan. 

In meetings, my colleagues and I discussed how many hygiene kits we could procure, whether returnees could carry these to their final destinations, whether we could start water-trucking to dry communities where soap alone is useless without water. 

Contingency plans, new distribution plans (authorities had begun to ban large public gatherings), procurement requests (should we double or triple the number of kits?), budget revisions, modification requests, meeting minutes: we generated paperwork while the virus and fear slowly spread. 

“The reality is that you can add some zeros to the official number – once the fear sinks in, there are no structures, no safety nets, no trust to contain it.”

As we asked ourselves if we should distribute cash instead of hygiene kits so that people can buy what they want, prices for food staples soared in marketplaces across Kabul – driven by border closures and coronavirus panic buying. In Afghanistan, where millions of people struggle to survive day to day, increases in food prices could translate to hunger, maybe riots.  

As the outside world began to shrink in on itself, and our head office closed their doors and meetings in European capitals were rescheduled to Skype, we watched the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Afghanistan climb from single to double digits.  

At 22 confirmed cases, I lost interest in the numbers, realising that they were meaningless in a country like Afghanistan. Days before, the capital applauded at two simultaneous presidential inaugurations, before fleeing as rockets drowned out the speeches. 

It doesn’t matter how many confirmed cases there are. The reality is that you can add some zeros to the official number – once the fear sinks in, there are no structures, no safety nets, no trust to contain it.

Instead, I tracked the statistics for the number of people crossing the border with Iran. Border crossings jumped from a few thousand to tens of thousands a week by mid-March: Afghan migrants and refugees returning to a country they left years or decades ago. Are they fleeing Iran and the fear of catching the virus there? Or are they being blamed, and escaping something stronger than the fear of returning to a country at war?  

Will people blame us, foreigners who travel back and forth to Europe, believing we’re bringing the virus to their country? The Taliban reached out to NGOs, asking health organisations to help, and promising safe access. Would we, an organisation that does not have health programmes, have safe passage, or will be blamed for further spreading the virus and doing nothing for those who fall sick?

Our humanitarian toolboxes and excel spreadsheets don’t prepare us for this new threat. Stay and deliver – yes, in every situation until now. But we have never faced a coronavirus pandemic before. What are the risks of staying? What are the impacts of delivering? 

“Perhaps my calculations will have been wrong: perhaps we do have a role to play and I stepped away at a crucial time.”

For me, the scales tipped decisively: the coronavirus is a risk to Afghanistan’s population and to the aid workers trying to serve them – including the more than 1,000 staff members who work for my organisation. We as aid workers are in turn a risk: even if we procure the soap and triple our hygiene kits, staff in the field could get sick and further spread the illness. Western governments are floundering trying to contain the virus, and trying to keep frontline staff safe. Are we – is anyone – any better prepared?

It was my decision to leave, and I will carry the consequences on my shoulders. Others remain, and they will bear the consequences of staying and trying to deliver.

As I began to write this, I was flying over Kandahar on one of the last flights out of Kabul. I know I am leaving when people here might think they need us the most. Perhaps my calculations will have been wrong: perhaps we do have a role to play and I stepped away at a crucial time.

But I don’t think I can do anything in the face of what might unfold in Afghanistan. Not now.  

For me, now is the time to gather my thoughts for when we are needed most. I believe that time is still ahead.

Stay or go?

As coronavirus spreads around the world, many people are encountering the daunting reality of a crisis – confinement, precarity, health risks – for the first time. For aid workers, who know the crisis domain all too well, the virus has likely added new, confusing dimensions to an already demanding life. How has the pandemic affected your own work, personal life, and perspective? And what is one thing you would tell someone who is encountering this for the first time?

Share your thoughts.

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