Afghan cricket team starts training despite virus fears

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s national cricket team began a month-long training camp Sunday, even as the coronavirus was spreading widely across the country and an international aid organization warned it was on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.

Afghanistan has officially recorded more than 20,000 cases countrywide, but the actual number is believed to be much higher.

Still, the Afghanistan Cricket Board announced the start of the training camp for its 22 players a day after the government laid out new guidelines to tackle the spread of the virus that includes wearing face masks, social distancing and limiting gatherings to 10 people or less.

Abdullah Pakthani, a spokesman for the Afghan Cricket Board, said players were under strict orders to abide by government rules for social distancing, and practice will be restricted to five or six players at any one time. The players won’t be tested for COVID-19 but they are not allowed in the stadium if they are unwell or have a fever.

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The cricket board said it started the camp under guidelines of the International Cricket Council and the World Health Organization.

Cricket is the most popular sport in Afghanistan, and Afghans have embraced the national team as a welcome diversion from relentless war and poverty. Stars like Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi are considered national icons.

But the training camp opens as international aid organizations warn that the coronavirus is still rife within Afghanistan’s 36 million people. Last week, the International Rescue Committee warned Afghanistan was on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.

COVID-19 is rapidly spreading undetected through Afghanistan, the IRC warned, saying the number of confirmed new cases rose by 684% in May. The country’s extremely low testing capacity means many more people are going untested, it added.

Afghanistan’s Health Ministry says it only has the capacity to test 2,000 people per day, but are receiving between 10,000 and 20,000 samples daily. That means up to 90% of potentially infected people are not being tested. And at 40%, Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of positive tests of all the countries where the IRC works, the organization said.

Officially, the country has about 20,000 confirmed coronavirus cases with more than 350 deaths.

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