Afghanistan, whose citizens have largely brushed aside the coronavirus pandemic as exaggerated or an outright hoax, is now preparing to distribute its first batch of vaccines.
A half-million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, produced by an Indian manufacturer, were delivered to the capital, Kabul, on Feb. 7. But the arrival was greeted with indifference by many Afghans, who have rebuffed government warnings that the virus is a deadly public health threat.
The cheap and easy-to-store AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is being delivered as part of the Covax program, a worldwide initiative to buy and distribute vaccines to poor countries free or at a reduced cost. On Feb. 15, the World Health Organization authorized use of the vaccine, which requires two doses per person, clearing the path for Afghanistan to begin its inoculation campaign.
Global trials have found that the vaccine offered complete protection against severe disease and death. But its efficacy against the virus variant first identified in South Africa is in question, after the shot failed in a small trial to prevent study participants from getting mild or moderate illness.
The vaccine arrives as Afghanistan is fighting off a second deadly wave, even as most Afghans go about their daily lives as if the virus never existed. Many people refuse to wear masks and cluster in dense crowds inside bazaars, supermarkets, restaurants and mosques, oblivious to ubiquitous public health posters.
In an impoverished nation battered by war, hunger, poverty and drought, an invisible virus is considered fake — or an afterthought.
“Of course I won’t take the vaccine, because I don’t believe in the existence of the coronavirus,” said Muhibullah Armani, 30, a taxi driver in the southern city of Kandahar.
Expressing a sentiment shared by many Afghans, Mr. Armani added, “When I see people covering their mouth and nose, afraid of Covid, it makes me laugh at them.”