Afghan couples downsize big fat weddings as coronavirus grips

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The wedding industry in Kabul has been hit hard, putting thousands of jobs at risk and bleeding millions from the Afghan economy. (AFP)
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A shopkeeper displays a dress on a mannequin as he waits for customers during the government-imposed lockdown as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Kabul, on May 19, 2020 (AFP)
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Updated 20 May 2020

Afghan couples downsize big fat weddings as coronavirus grips

  • Despite staggering levels of poverty and decades of war, Afghan weddings continue to be grand, loud affairs
  • Wedding industry in Kabul has been hit hard, putting thousands of jobs at risk and bleeding millions from the economy

KABUL: Afghanistan’s coronavirus crisis has freed young couples in Kabul to consider something that once seemed unthinkable: downsizing their weddings.
Extravagant ceremonies with thousands of guests packed into huge halls serving multi-course feasts are a traditional rite of passage in the country.
Grooms can rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt, while the opulent wedding halls and their suppliers have long been one of the capital’s few economic bright spots.
But with Kabul on lockdown as coronavirus cases rise, some people have pared down ceremonies that have been in the works for months.
“I have been engaged for the last two years and I was planning to get married in late March,” Latif Faramarz said.
The 26-year-old law student had been preparing to spend around $15,000 and was expecting 1,200 guests but was forced to recalibrate after wedding halls were shuttered in March due to the pandemic.
Faramarz drastically cut the guest list to 40 or 50 people and the cost to around $2,000.
“I’m not excited about downsizing my wedding, they come only once in a lifetime, it’s a joyous occasion. But I don’t have a choice,” he said.
The saving has however opened up other ways for the couple to spend their money and Faramarz now plans to study abroad with his future wife.
“Education is the best tool to climb the ladder and become successful,” he said.
Upending long-planned celebrations also means depriving Afghans — particularly women — of one of their few opportunities to celebrate en masse.
Despite staggering levels of poverty and decades of war, weddings continue to be grand, loud affairs.
Families and friends are crammed into segregated dining halls with occasional low-key dancing, while teams of stressed-out waiters ferry in mountains of food that is quickly devoured at the end of the night.
Photographers swarm around the lucky couple as they enter the hall and pose with family. Women relish the chance to don layers of make-up and wear their finest dresses.
And outside, armed guards keep a careful watch during the festivities, scanning the perimeter of the garishly lit venues that can often be seen from blocks away.
Weddings have been the occasional target of militant attacks, including a Daesh-claimed bombing in August 2019 that killed at least 80 people.
But the threat of violence has done little to temper the appetite for elaborate weddings and the financial reckoning they bring.
The price tag often plunges the poor into debt that they never escape. Grooms are also expected to pay hefty dowries and finance houses or apartments for the bride’s family.
Shir Ahmad — who asked to use a pseudonym — said he was planning to donate some of the extra cash to the poor after he cut his guest list from 1,000 people to 80.
“I wanted to have an extravagant wedding like my brothers, but my dreams have been shattered due to this virus,” said Ahmad, who will now likely host his wedding at home.
“I will donate the money set aside for the wedding to poor people in Kabul. I think it is not worth having a big party like I wished.”
And while grooms might be saving money, the wedding industry in Kabul has been hit hard, putting thousands of jobs at risk and bleeding millions from the economy.
“Our business is suffering,” said Nadir Qarghayee, who runs the wedding halls union in Kabul.
The city alone is home to 124 halls that employ up to 15,000 people, according to Qarghayee.
“It is a big economic blow to all the wedding halls. They have not operated for nearly two months, but they are still paying the rent and the salaries of the personnel and they have no income,” he said.
Holding wedding gatherings at home comes with its own risk of being caught breaking Kabul’s lockdown rules.
“I can have my party now but I think nobody will come,” said Ghulam Sarwar, after he was forced to delay his marriage.
“The government may take action if we have the ceremony and people come together.”


Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

Updated 08 July 2020

Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

  • Devastated family mourn latest victim of health system struggling to cope with outbreak

NEW DELHI: The death of an expectant mom and her unborn child after 13 hospitals in one day refused to treat her has put India’s strained health care system under the spotlight.

The devastated husband and 6-year-old child of eight-month pregnant Neelam Singh, 30, are still struggling to come to terms with the “unwarranted loss” a month after her agonizing death in an ambulance outside a hospital in New Delhi.

With more than 100,000 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the Indian capital, Singh became another victim of a health system battling to cope with patient demand due to a lack of bed space and infrastructure.

That, however, has been little comfort for her family members who said they would never be able to overcome the trauma.

“Those 12 hours were the most traumatic experience of our lives, and we have to live with that trauma,” Shailendra Kumar, Singh’s brother-in-law, told Arab News on Tuesday. Singh had developed complications with her pregnancy on June 5, and Kumar said she was rushed to the same hospital in Noida, Uttar Pradesh where she had been going for regular checkups, but was turned away.

“Shivalik (hospital) gave no reason for refusing to admit her. Despite our pleadings, the hospital did not budge from its stand,” Kumar added.

A day-long ordeal ensued, with one hospital after the other unable to treat her. Eventually, she died in an ambulance some 35 kilometers away from her home in Khoda.

“I took her to 13 hospitals, both government and private facilities, and every one refused to admit her. The image of her writhing in pain will always haunt me,” said Kumar, who was accompanied by Singh’s husband. He added that the reasons provided varied from “high costs” to a lack of facilities.

“One hospital told me that I could not pay the high cost so better try my luck somewhere else. At Sharda Hospital in Greater Noida, I was asked to buy a coupon for COVID-19 treatment for 4,500 rupees ($60), which I did, but still, they refused her entry. It was not the loss of one life but two lives,” he said, referring to her unborn child.

He pointed out that the entire family was in a state of shock following her death with her husband “the worst impacted.”

Kumar filed a complaint against Shivalik and other hospitals but said so far “no action has been taken.”

A day after Singh’s death, the district magistrate of Gautam Buddh Nagar, which Noida falls under, ordered an inquiry and issued instructions for all hospitals “to admit patients regardless of the nature of the case.”

However, 20 days later, on June 26, a similar incident was reported in the Dadri area of Noida.

On that occasion, 21-year-old Robin Bhati had developed a fever, and relatives had taken him to a nearby hospital where a week earlier he had been admitted suffering from influenza. However, the hospital refused to admit him and referred him to a different facility.

Five hours and four hospitals later, a city hospital agreed to take him in, but by then Bhati was already seriously ill and hours later he died after suffering a heart attack.

“We don’t know whether he was a COVID-19 patient or not, but why should hospitals refuse to admit a patient in need of immediate attention,” his uncle Jasveer Bhati told Arab News. A number of the Noida hospitals which allegedly denied admission to Singh and Bhati refused to comment on the cases.

In a statement on Monday, the office of Noida’s chief medical officer said: “Strict instructions have been given to all the private and government hospitals to admit all patients showing COVID-19 symptoms.”

Dr. Loveleen Mangla, a pulmonologist working with Noida-based Metro Hospital and Heart Institute, said: “The government did not prepare itself to face this situation. Now the government is trying to create extra beds and medical facilities, but it’s late. They should have done this three months ago when the nationwide lockdown started.

“With the entire medical infrastructure overstretched and not many quality health workers available in the government hospitals, it’s a grim scenario now,” Mangla added.

With more than 723,000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, India is now the world’s third worst-affected country after the US and Brazil, with approaching 21,000 people losing their lives.

And the problem is not unique to northern India.

On Saturday, the southern Indian city of Bangalore reported the case of 50-year-old Vasantha, who was rejected by 13 hospitals before she was accepted by the K.C. General Hospital where she eventually died.

Lalitha, a relative of Vasantha, said: “Some hospitals said they didn’t have beds; some said they didn’t have COVID-19 testing facilities, and that way we lost critical hours. She died because of a problem with her respiratory system.”

Experts have questioned whether health care facilities in India are being overstretched purely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Anant Bhan, a Delhi-based independent researcher in global health, policy and bioethics, said: “Is there a real shortage of beds or is it the shortage caused by lack of efficient management? If the cases increase further, we might find it difficult to provide care.”