By Storay Karimi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi
HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan authorities have quarantined 16 health workers, including six doctors, officials said on Tuesday, as Afghans fleeing hard-hit Iran have helped spread the coronavirus in the western border province of Herat.
Afghanistan, already battling a shortage of food and medicines amid a Taliban insurgency, has recorded 170 cases of the coronavirus, of which 131 were identified in Herat, a bustling province that shares a porous border with Iran, the worst-affected country in the Middle East.
"Six doctors, nine health workers and a helper have been infected with coronavirus in the past one week," said Khalid Ahadi, of the health department of Herat, adding that they were infected while treating returnees from Iran.
"We have few doctors and we can't afford to lose them."
Fears of contracting the virus in Iran have led to a record number of Afghan returnees in recent weeks, a daily average of more than 9,000, according to the International Organization of Migration.
Herat is one of more successful commercial centres in the landlocked country, and does bustling trade with Iran in handicrafts and commodities.
"We just don't know how to stop Afghans at the Iran border," said a senior interior ministry official in Kabul, adding three of four confirmed coronavirus deaths in Afghanistan were in Herat.
The Afghan health ministry estimates up to 40% of Afghanistan's 32 million people could be infected.
Government efforts to persuade people to maintain social distancing have proven futile amid the rush of returnees and a general lack of adherence to safety guidelines due to high rates of illiteracy and a fatalistic attitude toward life.
"If the long war and suicide bombings have not killed me, then why should I worry about a virus killing me?" said Hameed Wafai, a goldsmith in Herat.
Wafai said his family of 18 would starve if he didn't continue with his monthly visits to Iran to sell ornaments.
(Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Euan Rocha and Nick Macfie)