KABUL, Afghanistan

More than six months since the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of academic institutions, Afghanistan is set to reopen schools and universities amid fears and ambiguities.

New cases of COVID-19 continues to fall, although dubiously in the eyes of many observers, but the stage is set to reopen thousands of schools and universities in the war-ravaged country with a fragile health system.

The government announced earlier this month that if new cases remained low, reopenings would take place during first week of August.

Umer Amin, a resident in Kabul’s eastern Ahmad Shah Baba Maina township is quite uncertain about what to do.

“There were only few people like us, very few, who properly followed quarantine measures suggested by the [health] ministry,” he said. “The rest of the city remained reluctant so the threat of infections are still there, or they [officials] made a fool of us and there was no threat right from the start? These are the questions I face from my children,” the former public servant told Anadolu Agency about his experience during a three-month lockdown with this three school-aged boys and daughter.

Markets, public and private offices and other places where people gather such as enclosed wedding halls have already reopened.

Roadside shops, mosques and public places remained open throughout the peak of new infections.

But schools and universities were the only places that remained closed since March on top of the long winter holidays in December.

The clear contradiction

Health officials have constantly expressed annoyance towards the general carelessness in the deeply traditional and conservative society at social distancing and defiance about lockdown measures.

And, this clear contradiction in policy irks Abbas Arifi, a private university teacher in Kabul.

He believes the private sector, in particular education, has suffered immensely due to the prolonged closure.

“There is no other alternative [to re-opening] because due to poverty and prevailing practice, those teachers and other academic staff losing jobs due to closure could not stay home for months without any income so it is better to ask them to return to their jobs, ensure hygiene and social distancing at schools and universities and reopen them,” he said while speaking to Anadolu Agency.

After weeks of an uptrend in new cases, the latest figures by health ministry suggest the curve is bending.

To date, Afghanistan recorded a total of 36,542 cases and 1,271 fatalities.

“No doubt that a COVID-19 pandemic is a matter of life and death, but there are many serious ramifications of the closure [of schools and universities] on society that are of equal importance, or not more,” Arifi said, while supporting the government’s intentions to reopen academic institutions.

The government’s overall handling of the health crisis, however, remains subject of criticism. Its own assessment of the way things have been handled paints a grim picture.

The Office of the Ombudsperson’s preliminary investigations indicate financial embezzlement have taken place during the fight against COVID-19.

Head Ombudsman Ghizaal Haress told a news conference July 25 that some provincial officials bought “irrelevant” items and others were not engaged in invoicing.

On the proposed reopening, health ministry’s spokeswoman Massoma Jafari said it is strictly tied to conditions and regulations. She said the reopening shall be gradual, starting from higher classes and schools not complying with regulations would face closure. “Wearing a mask, provision of hand washing and sanitizing premises as well as social distancing are a must,” she stressed.

As per the proposed plan, mobile health ministry teams would monitor schools for compliance.

Afghanistan woke up to face the grim challenge posed by COVID-19 at least three months after the virus was first detected in China in December 2019.

The threat came knocking on the country’s western border with Iran when thousands of panicked Afghan refugees began returning forcefully and voluntarily daily with evident signs of the virus beginning in February.

Since the outbreak in neighboring Iran, close to 200,000 Afghans have been deported or returned voluntarily to their war-ravaged country, the UN migration agency confirmed.

Also, more than 150,000 stranded Afghans returned from neighboring Pakistan during the temporary opening of the main Torkham and Chaman crossing points.

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