Livelihoods – Afghanistan‘I had to ignore the threat of COVID-19 because I had to pay back my loans’
Ali Amani and Ali Shaheer
Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu communities have a long history in the country, with more than 200,000 living there until the 1990s. Since then, their numbers have steadily dwindled as conflict and discrimination have forced many to emigrate. Today, only a few hundreds remain.
For this group, the pandemic has brought new challenges that intersect with other problems, including a spate of violent attacks by extremists. For the significant number of community members engaged in herbal medicines, however, the situation has also seriously affected their livelihoods, placing further pressure on them.
Sher Singh, 57, borrowed 100,000 AFN (US $1,300) from a local bank a year ago to expand his small herbal and Unani medicine shop. With the income he had from his shop, he had predicted that by paying 10,000 AFN each month, he would be able to repay the bank loan in the next 10 months and also make ends meet for himself and his family. But there was one thing that, like everyone else, he had failed to take into account – the outbreak of COVID-19 and its devastating impact on public health and the economy.
Twelve months after receiving the loan, Singh has only been able to repay 10,000 AFN – and on top of this the bank has issued a fine for late payment. While he earned as much as 24,000 AFN a month before the pandemic, with the spread of the virus and the subsequent lockdowns across Afghanistan, his income has halved. ‘I had never imagined that coronavirus would have such a negative impact on our livelihoods’, he says. ‘I took the loan thinking that my income would be 20,000 AFN, the same as the previous year, out of which I would spend 10,000 AFN on household expenses and rent, and pay back the remaining 10,000 AFN to the bank.’
Singh’s shop is located next to the historic Gurdwara in Shor Bazar, the site of a brutal attack by ISIS in March 2020 that left at least 25 worshippers dead. While most of his relatives fled Afghanistan shortly after due to security threats, he was unable to do so because he had to repay the loan. Despite this uncertainty and weeks of lockdown, he did not lose hope in his business: he reopened his shop once restrictions were lifted, and was confident that he could pay off the bank loan. However, another disaster befell him and his shop on the morning of 6 February 2021, when a bomb exploded in his shop, destroying his herbal products and property. Sher Singh and his cousin were severely injured in the incident. Now he says he wished he had left Kabul like his other relatives after the ISIS attack: he has no idea how he can rebuild his business or repay his loan.
Gul Charan Singh, 25, also belongs to the Sikh minority and owns a herbal and Unani medicine shop in the eastern city of Jalalabad. He lives with his parents and three sisters, and is the sole breadwinner for the entire family. Although he does not have to pay rent for his shop, as it belongs to the Sikh Dharamsala, the outbreak of COVID-19 in Afghanistan has made it difficult for him to earn a living. Charan’s daily income is now less than half what it was before the pandemic. ‘I used to have a good income’, he says. ‘I could easily spend money on the household and other needs – sometimes I even sent money to my relatives abroad – but now I can’t even make ends meet for my own family.’
A number of other community members who make their living from herbal medicine report that, in addition to the lockdowns and a decline in customers, another difficulty is the closure of transportation and trade routes with neighbouring countries, including India, Pakistan and Iran. Prior to the pandemic, they were freely importing and exporting herbal and Ayurvedic products and medicines: this was an important source of income for them and without it many businesses are now struggling. At the same time, domestic demand has diminished as many customers are struggling to afford food, clothing and other basic needs.
While Afghanistan has witnessed a decline in infections in recent months, new cases of COVID-19 are still being reported and in the meantime the country is having to deal with the economic fallout. For millions of civilians, the immediate financial prospects are bleak. For marginalized communities such as Sikhs and Hindus, on the other hand, these pressures intersect with discrimination and persecution – issues that, without concerted efforts from government and society, could continue long after the pandemic is over.
Photo: An Sikh Afghan man accepts money from a customer at his traditional herb shop in Kabul, Afghanistan June 19, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail.