March 31, 2020
It will be nearly impossible for conflict-torn countries like Afghanistan to fight the coronavirus pandemic without immediate assistance from major states and aid organizations across the globe, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a new action alert.
“Health systems in conflict zones in places such as Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, and Afghanistan are simply not prepared to handle a flood of COVID-19 cases without a surge in support,” the ICRC said in a statement on March 30.
The pandemic comes at a time when Afghanistan is highly vulnerable after decades of war, a situation that is not improving amid ongoing clashes between the Taliban and government forces.
The ICRC said its work in prisons and support for health systems in Afghanistan is focusing on COVID-19 preparedness, detection, and preventive procedures. The organization also said it was establishing a rapid response plan “with isolation measures, hygiene improvement and protective materials.”
Meanwhile, citing the political gridlock in Kabul, the US State Department announced that it was cutting $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan. In a March 23 statement announcing the cuts, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States will provide $15 million “to help combat the spread of the coronavirus in Afghanistan.”
This likely did not reassure Afghan public health officials who are dealing with a huge financial shortfall in the face of the growing pandemic.
Officials claim that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Afghanistan has reached 120. However, according to Johns Hopkins University, as of March 31, the number hit 170.
Human Rights Watch has also warned that the number of COVID-19 cases could be much higher in Afghanistan than many suspect considering more than 100,000 Afghans from infected areas of Iran have crossed the border since the epidemic broke out in January.
Afghan Public Health Minister Ferozuddin Feroz sounded distressful because a huge budget gap needs to be filled.
“We might need $100 million while right now we have $18 million and it is nothing,” Feroz said as quoted by Tolo News on March 30.
According to HRW, health care in Afghanistan’s rural areas remains extremely poor, particularly in areas where fighting has been severe.
“Since 2002, despite the influx of reconstruction assistance, successive governments failed to prioritize health care. A March report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction documented inadequate staffing, poor working conditions, and corruption as undermining health care delivery,” HRW said. “US-backed Afghan special force units have raided clinics and assaulted and killed staff. The Taliban have attacked and closed clinics, threatened staff, and abducted vaccinators.”
On March 26, the ICRC called on the international community to donate more than $820 million to help vulnerable states, however, it is unclear how much will be earmarked for Afghanistan, assuming the desired amount is collected.
ICRC President Peter Maurer pointed out that the COVID-19 outbreak has “overwhelmed advanced health care systems,” let alone smaller countries that have been devastated by warfare.
The country with the biggest economy in the world, the United States, for example, has proven ill-equipped and ill-prepared to effectively fight COVID-19 as the case count surpasses a mind-boggling 164,000.
“Many of the places where we work lack even basic health care infrastructure, let alone intensive care capacity. Our fear is that unless urgent action is taken to curb the spread of the virus, it will devastate some of the world’s most vulnerable communities,” Maurer said.
The ICRC noted that it is in the best interests of all countries to ensure the virus is addressed in the most fragile states because lack of action could backfire.
“Viruses know no borders: this is a global problem which will only be solved by global action,” ICRC’s president said.
The ICRC called on armed actors in conflict theaters to facilitate the work of humanitarians as a priority. HRW said both warring sides in Afghanistan must work together “with the UN and humanitarian agencies to ensure that aid reaches the whole country, or a dire situation will become catastrophic.”
It is hard to imagine the insurgency taking the ICRC recommendation seriously. The Afghan government last week announced a three-week lockdown as part of an effort to contain the virus from spreading but the Taliban appear to be exploiting the situation.
On March 30, militants killed 28 Afghan security forces as Kabul postponed a Taliban prisoner release, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported citing officials.
The insurgents are not alone to blame, however. HRW in addition to the Taliban called out Afghan leaders for failing to take action amid the crisis.
“The spiraling COVID-19 crisis puts millions of Afghans at risk, yet Afghan officials are consumed with infighting and the Taliban with adversarial posturing,” HRW Associate Asia Director Patricia Gossman said in a statement on March 30.