The deeply polarised city of Kabul has recently been unified by a new addition to Afghan life—the surgical mask.
It is being sported by everyone from the children selling phone cards by the roadside to government ministers being driven past in their bulletproof 4x4s.
The H1N1 virus—known here as “Mexican” rather than “swine” flu—has many people fearing for their lives.
But many Afghans are more than a bit suspicious that the government has hyped the threat of the virus since United Nation (UN) election monitors demanded a second poll.
The “outbreak” has been used as an excuse to close all the universities, schools and other large buildings, just as incumbent president Hamid Karzai is declared leader for another term.
His rival, former foreign affairs minister Abdullah Abdullah, had predicted Iran-style protests if Karzai was re-elected.
Now, with the colleges and public buildings all but empty and everyone scared of moving in large crowds, the chances of any post-election insurrection have all but vanished.
Abdullah has yet to explain why he pulled out of the run-off, though most people in Kabul seem way past caring.
Their disillusionment with the government has been festering for many years.
The other thing that has united all factions in Afghanistan is the belief that the first run of elections were riddled with corruption.
The UN reported that around one third of all votes cast were almost certainly fraudulent.
The cancellation of the second round has plunged the entire process into farce. Outside the “ring of steel” that surrounds the ruling elite, ordinary Afghans are becoming increasingly separated from their government.
Maryam Quadir is highly educated and works in Kabul as an administrator for a specialised team of social workers.
She went to university in Pakistan, when her family fled the civil war, and she returned after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 with high hopes.
She is far from happy with the choices presented to the Afghan people. Like many, she believes the elections were little more than a meaningless Nato-sponsored PR exercise, designed to create an illusion of democracy.
She believes that Abdullah Abdullah should be banned from standing for public office due to his past connection to the civil war faction led by General Ahmad Shah Masoud.
“Abdullah’s hands are stained with the blood of the people,” she says. “He was the spokesman for Masoud in 1992 when a massacre took place in Kabul.
“It is painful for people to see the face of this man everywhere—65,000 people died in Kabul during the civil war. Thousands of women and girls were raped.
“How would you feel if the killers of your children were in your government?”
The presence of so many former warlords in government positions remains a thorny issue for Afghans trying to draw a line under the past.
Maryam has also been unimpressed with Karzai since he was installed by the US after the 2001 invasion.
“He promised that no one would be above the law. Yet he gave power to the gangsters of the Northern Alliance.
“The crimes committed by them from 1992-96, including mass rape and murder, have been forgotten by no one except Karzai himself.
“We were promised reconstruction. Yet if you walk around Kabul the only reconstruction you will see is luxury high rise buildings and wedding halls.
“Nothing is being done for the ordinary people. Look at the state of the roads. Look at the five year old children who are working ten hours a day.
“We have the highest percentage of child labour in South Asia yet billions have been sent here in aid and donations. Where has all this money gone?
“Karzai has not helped the Afghan people at all. He is like a US puppet and cannot do anything without its permission. Our president is elected in the White House.”
By contrast, Aziz Khan, who runs a nearby internet cafe, is a staunch Karzai supporter.
However, he is equally disillusioned with recent events—despite his candidate being declared the winner.
He believes that, corruption aside, Karzai won the first round and the second election would have legitimised his return to office.
He now fears that his position has been weakened to being almost untenable.
“To cancel the second election was a big mistake,” he says.
“This I think was a decision made by the Americans and not the Afghan government. It undermines both our democracy and our independence.
“How can the president rule when everyone believes that the election was stolen?”
One person who is delighted by the cancellation is local police sergeant Mohammed.
His patch includes the notorious Kowtasangey district, where the local black market thrives and unemployed labourers are forced to rub shoulders with drug dealers and pickpockets.
The middle-aged, world-weary officer was a Communist activist in his youth.
But any hope or idealism he once fostered has all but drained away and he now has little but contempt for politics.
For him, another election would have meant another hellish day of seeing his men run the gauntlet of insurgent attacks while being tasked with running an event way beyond their capabilities.
This is something few Afghans can see the point of in the present circumstances.
“My constables do not receive enough equipment and training to do their basic job let alone tackle electoral corruption,” he says.
“Everywhere there were reports of ballot boxes arriving at polling stations already stuffed with papers. What are we supposed to do about this?
“This neighbourhood is notorious for the trafficking of children,” he says, indicating towards the sprawl of run down dwellings behind him.
“Such issues are a national disgrace. But we don’t even have the ability to control the traffic on the roads.”
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