By Ali Ahmad
Transnationalism has evolved with the advancement of new technologies, which has facilitated cross-border activities of diasporas in general, but particularly in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Diaspora organisations play a vital role in connecting countries of settlement and origin and in understanding the dynamics of migration. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, virtual internet platforms have created enormous opportunities for diaspora to extensively engage with countries of origin by sharing the latest knowledge on COVID-19 and starting dialogues. Migration scholars, policymakers, researchers and media have mainly focused on the financial contribution of diaspora and diasporic organisations. But like any other social infrastructure, Afghan diaspora organisations also extend social, cultural, political and developmental support to Afghanistan.
The first case of COVID-19 in Afghanistan was officially announced on 24 February 2020 in western Herat province and soon spread throughout the country. According to John Hopkins University, which tracks confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, as of 13 June 2021, the virus had infected 88,090 Afghans of which 3,449 have lost their lives. As a low-resource country, the pandemic has affected Afghanistan’s healthcare system, which has the lowest number of medical workers in the world, with 1.9 physicians per 10,000 people. In a survey of healthcare workers in Afghanistan during the pandemic, 85% of healthcare workers had tested positive in the first five months of the infection. Since the start of the pandemic, armed violence across Afghanistan has also killed thousands of civilian Afghans on top of what the pandemic has caused.
The pandemic has encouraged Medical Committee Afghanistan-Netherlands (MCAN), an Afghan diaspora organisation based in the Netherlands, to transfer their most up-to-date medical knowledge on diagnosing and treating patients with COVID-19 to doctors and healthcare providers in Afghanistan, using the organisation’s social media and other virtual platforms, such as Zoom.
‘The pandemic opened our eyes to use various opportunities that internet provides. Before the pandemic, we thought of travelling to Afghanistan to transfer our skills through lectures and training programs, but the spread of corona forced us to think out of the box,’ recalled Razma Paykardjoe, the chairwoman of MCAN.
Founded in 2014 in Utrecht by a group of medical professionals from the Afghan diaspora in the Netherlands, MCAN has pursued three main objectives since its establishment: sharing knowledge, building networks, and collaborating to become stronger. Through its transnational activities, MCAN attempts to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s healthcare system. Since its founding, MCAN has implemented two transnational medical projects using online platforms including UpToDate and eSurgery. The pandemic has also inspired MCAN to create another project with an objective to connect Afghan doctors in Afghanistan with the Afghan diaspora across Europe.
During the first wave of COVID-19 in Afghanistan, MCAN managed to develop a guideline in partnership with Afghan-Dutch clinicians who were engaged in Dutch hospitals. The guideline, titled ‘COVID-19: A practical guideline for healthcare professionals in Afghanistan’, was drafted in an attempt to strengthen clinical management of COVID-19 patients and to provide up-to-date instructions on how to diagnose and treat patients, taking Afghanistan’s limited resources in the medical sector into consideration. ‘We wanted to transfer our newest approaches of practices when dealing with COVID-19 in the Netherlands to Afghan doctors and hospitals in Afghanistan’, said Paykardjoe.
This Afghan-Dutch diaspora organisation arranged a series of webinars on topics related to COVID-19 diagnoses and treatment. The ‘new normality’, with the support of various technological platforms, made it easy to reach out to more doctors and healthcare professionals not only in the capital Kabul but also in western Herat and Farah, and healthcare workers in Northern Mazar-e Sharif provinces. Paykardjoe said that while the virus had a negative global impact since its outbreak, the organisation has had many achievements during the rapid spread of the virus. According to Paykardjoe, access to the internet by medical professionals in Afghanistan made it possible to achieve what seemed difficult in the pre-pandemic era. She reiterated that the various technological platforms made it easy to connect to a larger audience from Afghanistan due to the widespread internet uptake amongst healthcare workers, especially doctors.
According to Paykardjoe, between 40 and 50 doctors from various private and state hospitals in Afghanistan participated in MCAN’s weekly webinars on COVID-19. The diaspora organisation then shared the recorded webinars on their Facebook page, YouTube channel and website, and those interested in the topic watched the webinars at a later stage. Another positive element of such transnational training was the fact that MCAN removed the language barrier and conducted all its webinars in Afghanistan’s two main languages, Dari and Pashtu, which increased the utility and reach of the programme to different hospitals across Afghanistan. The challenge, Paykardjoe said, is the ability to know how many participants really benefit from the online lectures because the organisation has not yet been able to evaluate its services.
As one of the participants of MCAN’s transnational knowledge transfer, Dr Farid Rafiee, who works in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan hospital, benefited from the webinars greatly. During his conversation with the author, Rafiee said that the healthcare professionals in Afghanistan did not know what measures were needed when admitting COVID-19 patients in hospitals, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic when knowledge on the virus was limited in low-resourced Afghanistan. ‘In those early days of COVID-19, the webinars by MCAN helped us with diagnosing (testing kits were limited), treating, using the best knowledge available in European hospitals’, said Rafiee. ‘We learned the radiological changes that the virus brings to affected patients and the best approach on oxygen-therapy when people with COVID-19 were admitted in our hospital’, Rafiee recalled.
During the pandemic, MCAN and its team have played a significant role in using technology to support their fellow Afghan healthcare workers across Afghanistan. It represents a successful example of the power of diaspora organisations in harnessing technology to transfer medical expertise, playing a vital role in linking countries of settlement and origin.
Note: In collaboration with iDiaspora and International Organization for Migration (IOM), Routed Magazine published this article on its special issue “Empowering global diaspora in the digital era” on 25 June 2021.