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Gravediggers Give Glimpse To The Severity Of COVID-19 In Kabul


Kabul's grave diggers have long been witness to Afghanistan's bloodshed. Now they're given a glimpse of how the pandemic is battering the Afghan capital, as NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: On a windswept mountainside that looms over Kabul, Abbas digs a new grave.

ABBAS: (Speaking non-English language).

HADID: Like a lot of Afghans, he's only got one name.

ABBAS: (Through interpreter) We are so busy these days. People bring their dead during the day and during the night.

HADID: Abbas has worked in the cemetery for nearly a decade. He's sometimes called to dig graves quickly to bury the victims of militant attacks. But he says the last six weeks are the busiest he's ever seen.

ABBAS: (Through interpreter) The sickness has spread between the people, and the number of deaths are growing.

HADID: He believes people are dying of COVID-19. Abbas says before the pandemic, they'd bury seven or eight people a day.

ABBAS: (Speaking non-English language).

HADID: Now it's more like 20. He sometimes buries family members side by side. Kabul's grave diggers occupy some of the lowest rungs in Afghan society, and they're emerging as some of the most important eyewitnesses of how badly this pandemic is affecting Afghanistan because government statistics are unreliable.

Khushal Nabizada is the director of public health in the Kabul province. He says there's only about 12,000 confirmed COVID cases in Kabul because they've only done 30,000 tests.

KHUSHAL NABIZADA: But looking to the population of Kabul, our assumption is that there might be more than 1 million cases in Kabul.

HADID: One million out of 7 million residents. Nabizada says they reached that conclusion from looking at patient flows at local hospitals, random testing and announcements on social media. He says there's only about 130 confirmed deaths from COVID in Kabul. But the real number is likely much higher. He says at least 20 to 30 people a day are calling a hotline the government set up to provide coffins and sanitation equipment to bereaved families.

NABIZADA: I assume that's maybe two or three times more than this. People are dying, and they are not reporting to us. And they are not asking for support.

HADID: He says the families want to have a traditional Muslim burial - that is wrapping up their loved one in a shroud, not burying them in a coffin, which is standard practice for COVID-19 victims.

Back in the Kabul cemetery, the grave diggers say the pandemic is changing how they work. Before, they'd wait for bereaved families to come and ask them to dig a grave. Now workers like Hajji Nangalay scrapes his shovel through the hard, rocky ground to dig graves in advance. He says their families bring their loved ones straight from the hospital to the graveyard. One empty grave is used right away by a group of mourners who trudge up the hill carrying a coffin.

UNIDENTIFIED MOURNERS: (Speaking non-English language).

HADID: At another Kabul cemetery, the managers hired six more men to keep up with the pace of burials. One of the old workers here is Rajab. He only goes by one name. He says they're busiest through the day, but now they're also burying people at night.

RAJAB: (Speaking non-English language).

HADID: He says, because they're corona victims, there's nowhere to store the body. And in the morning, a fresh wave of families will come asking where they can put their loved ones to rest. Diaa Hadid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.