June 2, 2020
COVID-19 cases have dramatically surged in Afghanistan due to lack of resources, unconstrained refugee flows and the international community’s inability to respond, among other reasons, while health officials and aid agencies predict that the virus will continue spreading undetected.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) declared that Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian disaster, noting that the number of COVID-19 cases jumped by more than 680% last month. The IRC also drew a dire picture of what is likely to come as Afghan health officials say they only have the capacity to test 2,000 cases per day.
“That means between 80 and 90 percent of potential cases are not being tested. Afghanistan has one of the highest test positivity rates (40%) of all the countries where the IRC works, suggesting a high level of undetected population infection,” the IRC said in a statement on Monday, June 1.
This news comes just a day after the health ministry announced that Afghanistan saw 680 new cases within a 24-hour period.
The IRC also said many Afghan health clinics continue to lack proper protective gear to treat COVID-19 patients and “are turning away those showing signs and symptoms.”
And, despite a recent reprieve, the armed conflict also persists to negatively affect rescue efforts.
“Attacks on health facilities and civilian infrastructure, like the recent horrific attack on a maternity ward in Kabul, continue despite a recent three-day ceasefire and ongoing peace negotiations between the US and the Afghan government and the Taliban,” the IRC said.
IRC teams on the ground have witnessed other indirect ramifications including an increase in violence against women and children along with increased economic hardship.
“This horrible conflict and now the economic impact of this virus has left almost 11 million people facing severe food insecurity, unsure of where their next meal will come from,” the aid agency said.
This comes just weeks after alarms were sounded that this precise thing would happen due to the dearth in testing capacity and care facilities.
And, as reported in Afghan Online Press, at the end of March several aid agencies and rights groups warned that the coronavirus disease case count would skyrocket considering more than 100,000 Afghans from infected areas of Iran have crossed the border since the epidemic broke out in January.
Meanwhile, calls for help have for the most part fallen on deaf ears as other countries struggle with the pandemic. The biggest donating country, the United States, cut off $1 billion in assistance recently. In addition, the Trump administration cut off World Health Organization funding – about $400 million in 2019 – a move that will partially impact Afghanistan.
Moreover, the Americans are faring no better than the Afghans in fighting the disease. The U.S. is the world leader in coronavirus cases, eclipsing 1.8 million on June 1.
Another way in which the pandemic could impact the country’s security is vis-à-vis the intra-Afghan talks – assuming they ever get started, as Dr. Sudha Ramachandran, an independent researcher, explains in The Central Asia-Caucus Analyst.
“How the intra-Afghan talks will be conducted could also be impacted by Covid-19. Face-to-face talks between negotiating teams and robust participation of facilitators will not be possible. A sustainable peace requires community consultation and participation. That will not be feasible either, which means that the process will remain confined to the elite level,” Ramachandran said in an article published on May 26.
Ramachandran argues that the pandemic provides an opportunity for Kabul and the Taliban to cooperate to improve access for COVID-19 treatment. However, she also warns that while the crisis presents a confidence-building opportunity, “the Taliban may not be willing to give up the advantages it holds on the battlefield at this point.”
She noted that the Taliban’s response has evolved – from calling the virus a “decree of Allah,” to promising safe passage for health workers in areas the insurgent group controls.
The political deadlock between Ghani and Abdullah has finally cracked, which also offers hope that the government response can be more effective.
Yet Taliban and ISIS attacks on civilians and Afghan security forces has severely restricted the government’s outreach to insurgent-controlled areas for testing and treatment, Ramachandran noted.
Thus far, overall, it appears the Taliban has not taken the virus as seriously as the government and this has potentially hurt the insurgent group. There are some reports that the Taliban’s supreme leader has contracted the virus while some anonymous sources have said he might even be dead.
In any event, it will be hard for Afghanistan to recover from this disease unless the insurgents are willing to help the government reach the key areas in question. The Taliban will need to wake up and see that the proverbial “enemy of my enemy” is COVID-19.
At the end of the day, the Taliban may find it is easier to defeat an empire than the virus.