When Gabriel García Márquez published Love in the Time of Cholera in 1985, Afghanistan had entered the sixth year of what has become more than 40 years of war, leaving millions of people dead, injured or displaced. In 2019 alone, more than 10,000 civilians were killed or injured in the conflict. In his novel, Márquez’s metaphor of cholera, which strikes unexpectedly and leads to death within a few hours, reminds us of life’s brevity and of love’s urgency. The unfolding COVID-19 crisis in Afghanistan is yet another reminder of the devastating effect of wars on human security. For the fledgling peace process, however, COVID-19 is either an existential threat or a golden opportunity, depending on whether Afghan elites and the Taliban can work together.
Even a small outbreak could cause a major health crisis
Officially, Afghanistan had registered just 273 cases as of 2 April, mostly due to its extremely low testing capacity—by 16 March, only 250 tests had been conducted. The numbers of unreported cases are likely to be much higher, given that since January more than 115,000 Afghans have returned from Iran, one of the epicentres of the pandemic. The Health Ministry warned that up to 75 per cent of the population could become infected, with more than 100,000 people potentially dying.
Even a small outbreak could cause a major health crisis, especially if the fighting, which injures thousands of people every year, continues. According to the Fragile State Index, the Afghan State’s ability to provide essential services, such as health care and sanitation, to the general population was among the weakest in the world in 2019. The ability of the Afghan government to effectively deal with the coronavirus pandemic is further degraded by the ongoing constitutional crisis stemming from the disputed results of the 2019 presidential elections, and this may worsen outcomes.
Lockdown and social distancing: Neither fully enforceable nor feasible
To address the crisis, the central government is building new COVID-19 hospitals and clinics in provincial and district centres. With many more cases anticipated and essential equipment in short supply, such as masks and ventilators, these measures are insufficient, and major international assistance is needed. A lockdown of Kabul and other cities since 28 March aims to slow the spread of the virus, yet the government has neither the human resources to enforce such rulings on the streets nor the financial ones to compensate businesses and workers for the resulting losses. Many people are unable to fully observe social distancing either due to crowded multigenerational families in one home or dependence on daily wages.
Closed borders and reduced aid
The situation is further aggravated by regional developments. While the Afghan authorities asked Iran to close the border to prevent the spread of the virus, cross-border movements continue. India and Pakistan, sought-after alternative sources for health care to the relatively ineffective Afghan health care system, have suspended international travel, which also affects vital international trade. Finally, restrictions extend to the northern borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, increasing fears of shortages in essential supplies. For the landlocked country, where food insecurity is an endemic challenge for millions of people, wheat imports from Central Asia are crucial.
In addition to the domestic and regional challenges, Afghanistan’s outcomes lie predominantly beyond its span of control. More than 75 per cent of the Afghan budget is financed by advanced economies, many of which face major economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. The US economy alone could decline by $2.5 trillion. Donor countries, including the US, will likely face increased pressure for international disengagement. Total amounts of assistance are likely to shrink, and donors may prioritize short-term humanitarian aid over medium- and long-term development goals. These impacts will only add to the quagmire created by the US aid reductions in response to the yet-unresolved election crisis.
The only way out: Cooperative action for the greater good
In these critical times, cooperative action by Afghan elites and the Taliban is urgently needed to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. All parties have started to call on the public to observe protective measures and to impose strict rules and health checks at hospitals in areas under their control. There have been two further steps in the right direction: last week’s formation of a negotiation team, which was widely accepted at least among the Kabul factions, and the start of deliberations over the release of Taliban fighters in government custody. If an immediate ceasefire, as demanded by the UN, materializes and prisoner releases are accelerated, the COVID-19 human security catastrophe will be mitigated. At a minimum, this would sustain greater levels of good will among donor countries and assure continuing aid. At a maximum, Western countries will actively participate in the political process, steering Afghanistan towards positive outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the urgency for peace in Afghanistan to unprecedented levels. We hope it is converted into the required decisive action.
Dr. Magdalena Kirchner is the Director of the FES Afghanistan Office.
The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.
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