Volunteer writer, Livia Watts, tells us about the effects Covid-19 has had on Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a region that has faced war for nearly two decades. On the 7th October 2001, just after the 9/11 attacks, the US led an intervention into Afghanistan, marking the beginning of the ‘Global War on Terror’. The mission aimed to oust the Taliban insurgency from power and deny Al-Qaeda a safe-haven to carry out their operations and orchestrate more attacks. While this goal was met in the initial stages of the invasion, Afghanistan later became entangled in a Taliban re-emergence as well as continued threats from other insurgencies operating in the region. After nineteen years of engagement, it has become the US’ longest war.
With millions of girls now in education and mass improvements to critical national infrastructures, such as water, sanitation, electricity and health services, it is safe to say that Afghanistan has come a long way over the last 19 years. However, there are issues that threaten the stability and security of the region that undermine long-term, sustainable progress. After peace talks began with the Taliban in 2019, there was some hope that Afghanistan would emerge from the shadow of war. Nevertheless, despite ongoing peace deals and negotiations with the US, Taliban and Afghan Government, violence and insurgent attacks have continued to occur across the region. It is no surprise that a country like Afghanistan, which has witnessed insecurity and political instability for decades, struggles to achieve peace. In fact, since peace negotiations began, violence has said to have increased by 50%, with Afghan forces and civilians facing the brunt of the assaults. Alongside this, IS has also been orchestrating attacks.
Consequently, COVID-19 has hit Afghanistan during a ‘difficult political transition, an intensifying conflict, and significant uncertainty regarding future grant support’.
The Facts and Figures (accurate as of 10/11/20):
- 42,297 confirmed cases.
- 1,574 confirmed deaths.
- There are 11 COVID-19 testing laboratories, all of which are concentrated in only 7 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
- This restrains the ability to understand the breadth of the spread within the country.
- Confirmed cases are therefore said to only encompass around a tenth of actual cases.
- There is a dire 9.4 health professionals for every 10,000 people.
But what has helped fuel the spread of COVID-19 in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan’s geographical positioning as a landlocked country has always disadvantaged the country in terms of critical trade and development, as international markets are largely inaccessible without help from neighbouring countries, in particular, Pakistan. Consequently, Afghanistan could not afford to introduce major border restrictions due to a dependency on ‘imports from neighbouring countries’. Thousands of people cross the border from Pakistan and Iran into Afghanistan. During a pandemic of this scale, this has been a dangerous migration that has burdened hopes to reduce transmission.
It was said that from around February, an estimated 300,000 Afghan migrant workers returned to the country from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. However, such locations have been labelled as some of the virus’ ‘global epicentres’. The sheer impact of this migration is emphasised in the fact that Herat, the province that borders onto Iran, was labelled as Afghanistan’s pandemic ‘epicentre’. Despite this, Humanitarian groups have stated that closing borders could be even more detrimental as it would cause a build-up of migrants in camps at border crossings, creating a further breeding ground for the spread of the virus.
An Unstable Healthcare System
Living in an active conflict zone has a direct impact on how Afghans carry out their everyday lives. For many of us, a journey to the hospital is not necessarily one in which we fear for our lives, but in Afghanistan this is an unfortunate reality. Afghans often have to weigh up whether travelling the distance to a hospital is worth the risk of coming into contact with active landmines on roads, or whether it is safe enough to travel through the night when fighting is ongoing. Due to this, it has been said that many Afghans wait out the illness, as the journey to a hospital is seen as too dangerous. Furthermore, when they arrive at a hospital, the wait for treatment and results is not one many want to endure. This is not surprising when it was reported that there are as little as 300 ventilators in Afghanistan. 300 ventilators are nowhere near a sufficient amount to treat a virus that seems to rise in cases at such an exponential rate. This isn’t helped by the fact that many healthcare workers have not been trained to use them.
Therefore, Afghanistan’s already weak health system is utterly overwhelmed due to the scale of this pandemic. This has meant that deaths are not only high as a result of the virus, but also from other ‘preventable and treatable’ conditions. Health infrastructures are struggling to accommodate and adapt their facilities for COVID-19, whilst also maintaining consistent support for other crucial health services.
What moves have the government taken to mitigate the pandemic?
While the Afghan Government has made moves to limit the impacts of the pandemic on their population, continued instability in the region makes response plan implementation challenging. As calls for a ceasefire grow, the Afghan Government has found itself in a difficult position of attempting to tackle attacks from insurgent groups whilst also trying to contain the spread of the virus.
Afghanistan has received over $500 million from the international donor community to help respond to the pandemic. Such funds have been utilised to try and increase the region’s testing and healthcare capacities. Also, the livelihoods of many Afghans have been strained amid the pandemic; so, some initiatives have helped provide bread rations to those who are struggling with food insecurity. Alongside this, some campaigns are pushing for rent relief schemes in Kabul to encourage landlords to recognise the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable. However, Afghanistan is highly decentralised, meaning that a lot of these schemes are limited to specific communities. This decentralisation contributes to the Afghan Government’s inability to implement widespread pandemic control measures.
Are these measures effective in controlling the pandemic?
It would be unfair to say that the Afghan Government’s attempts to limit the pandemic are entirely ineffective. Donor support has allowed the region to increase its critical capacities in light of a challenging global health security issue. COVID-19 has been a learning experience for governments and organisations around the world, and Afghanistan is no exception. The pandemic has helped demonstrate that Afghanistan is by no means as secure and stable as it needs to be to withstand shocks like this. It has drawn attention to the weaknesses of its critical national infrastructures, which are severely inadequate in providing for and protecting all Afghans.
With this considered, the measures have helped, but are not effective in controlling the effects of the pandemic in the long-term. While many developed countries in the Western world have introduced schemes to safeguard livelihoods and sustain jobs threatened by the socioeconomic impacts of the virus, those residing in Afghanistan have not been awarded the same security. Many Afghans are facing poverty and hunger, exacerbated by rising food prices due to ongoing conflict and health insecurity. This food crisis has dramatically escalated over the last year, with the United Nations now warning of an impending famine, to which millions of Afghans will lose their lives.
Moreover, humanitarian organisations have also issued fifteen gender alerts for COVID-19 in Afghanistan. The region has a history of gender inequality, with women facing dangerous widespread discrimination. Over the years, NGOs have assisted the promotion of gender equality within sectors such as health and education. Despite this, Afghanistan still ‘ranks among the least favourable on the Gender Inequality Index’. This gender inequality has been carried through the pandemic, with women being disproportionately affected by job insecurity, access to continued education, and gender-based violence. The Afghan Government needs to be doing more to safeguard women and girls while ensuring they have equal and safe access to critical infrastructures. Gender inequality is another issue that plagues Afghanistan’s ability to become a safe and secure country for all citizens.
While there is no ideal time for a pandemic to disrupt international order, it is the developing countries of the Global South that are really feeling the impact of COVID-19. Countries in this part of the world are often heavily reliant on international aid and support. Nevertheless, with the developed countries of the West trying to limit the impact of the virus within their own borders, international assistance is under threat. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that global health security is no joke. It has helped demonstrate that governments cannot afford to be reactive to health crises anymore. Instead, there needs to be a cooperative effort to instil a resilience within health infrastructures; so, in the event of this happening again, countries can pre-empt its impacts and ‘withstand the shocks of a global pandemic’. This includes strengthening the health infrastructures in developing countries too, in the quest for global health equality.
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Featured header image by Annabel Smith.