April 16, 2020
It is hard to envision the powers that be in Afghanistan – amid ongoing civil war and political disunity – devising a coherent strategy to handle the coronavirus outbreak and the concomitant economic freefall.
As of April 15, Afghanistan had 784 confirmed coronavirus cases in at least 27 of the country’s 34 provinces, according to Johns Hopkins University real-time tracker. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported that only 4,470 COVID-19 tests have been completed.
Several UN agencies have put forth rather dark forecasts about the reality of what Afghanistan is on the verge of and have bluntly warned that the country must brace for a surge in infections. A perfect storm of the worst kind has been swirling: an influx of refugees in combination with a lack of virus testing supplies.
“Cases are expected to increase rapidly over the weeks ahead as community transmission escalates, creating grave implications for Afghanistan’s economy and people’s wellbeing,” the UN’s humanitarian office said in an update on April 15.
The size of the influx from Pakistan and Iran – which combined host roughly 90% of the world’s 2.7 million Afghan refugees – is horrifying because of the prospect of undetected infections.
Iran has fiercely struggled with the pandemic – the country now has more than 76,000 confirmed cases – and around 1,500 refugees have been leaving the country and entering Afghanistan on a daily basis.
UN refugee agency spokesperson Babar Baloch on April 14 said in March 60,000 Afghan refugees came home from Iran.
In terms of response to the gaps, according to the UN, the Afghan government plans to expand to fifteen testing facilities across the country within the next month.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that kits are being sent from Kabul to the regional testing hubs on a “needs-basis” because – due to global shortages – the supplies cannot be stockpiled.
This lack of testing capabilities proved to be one of the key reasons the United States was overwhelmed by the pandemic because undetected infected people entered metro areas such as New York City – which was tantamount to throwing a match on a powder keg.
Considering the United States was undone by hundreds of cruise ship returnees, one can only imagine what Afghanistan will face in coming weeks due to the mass migration from virus-struck Iran.
Baloch also warned that Afghanistan’s medical and social services will be overwhelmed while poverty levels rise even further.
Complicating matters is the fact that the UN refugee agency itself temporarily suspended supporting voluntary returns to limit the risk of refugees and staff contracting the virus.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects Afghanistan to fall into a recession. In its April economic outlook, the IMF projected that Afghanistan will see a negative growth rate in 2020 (-3%), quite a turnaround from the 3 percent positive growth achieved in 2019.
In addition, Afghan exports are forecasted to drop by 40 percent in 2020 compared to last year.
Afghanistan Affairs Unit (AAU) economic analyst Shoaib A. Rahim noted that the global lockdown and travel restrictions have put a dent in customs proceeds, which account for about 40% of Afghanistan’s annual revenue. Customs revenue fell in March by 90 percent compared to the previous month, he said.
Rahim also said the lockdown will have a depressive rippling effect on Afghanistan’s local manufacturing, construction and service sectors and the country’s biggest employer – the agricultural industry.
Moreover, Afghanistan is an aid-reliant state and the fact major donor countries are spending trillions of dollars trying to save their own economies bodes ill for future funding. Rahim explained that two key developments are crucial to bouncing back from the current crisis.
“First, remarkable progress on peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Second, settlement of the controversy between current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and ex-CEO Abdullah Abdullah over the results of the 2019 presidential election. This would make fundraising easier at a time when major donors are fighting their own human and economic losses from the pandemic,” Rahim argued in a piece for The Diplomat on April 11.
The UN humanitarian office also underscored the importance of internal political unity in coordinating efforts to contain the spread of the virus.
“Humanitarian partners continue to urge the [Afghan] Government to employ a national approach to these issues so that individual negotiations are not required on a case-by-case basis,” UNOCHA said.
At an event at the presidential palace on April 12, Ghani said the Afghan government has the “capacity” to fight the coronavirus but defeating the pandemic requires a “unified” approach.
The truth is the political disunity in Afghanistan is just as lethal as the inflow of infected refugees and lack of testing kits.
Moreover, the reality of the situation is quite grim indeed if success hinges on unity suddenly breaking out among the two-headed government in Kabul and the insurgents.