While the conflict continues in Afghanistan, another invisible enemy is just around the corner. The pandemic is slowly making inroads into urban centres.
The impetus for the spread of coronavirus was provided by Afghans returning from Iran. More than 200,000 Afghan refugees have so far entered Afghanistan from Iran. Many are carrying symptoms of the virus– just as thousands of Pakistani pilgrims returning from Iran became the principal source of the spread of Covid-19. The Afghan refugees coming back from Iran have now spread all across the country and many have not been quarantined.
Afghan health delivery systems are weak both in terms of equipment, laboratories and trained medical staff. It is not possible for such infrastructure to take care of thousands of patients if the virus spreads. In most rural areas where society is still tribally structured, people will not observe the rules of social distancing.
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Meanwhile, the most feared dimension of the pandemic spreading rapidly in Afghanistan is the acute poverty under which the bulk of the population lives. Unemployment is at nearly 45 percent, adding to the misery and suffering of a people who have endured the pain and hardship of a conflict that does not yet have an end in sight.
And because the country’s administrative institutions are in disarray, it is not expected that there will be a robust and concerted effort to counter the onslaught of the epidemic once it spreads to all corners of the country.
From areas under Taliban control, there are some organizations or NGOs taking care of the sick or those struck by the coronavirus. Against this background, if the virus continues to make ingress into large urban slums and rural hinterlands, the prospects of a calamity will loom large on the horizon. If the virus continues to attack wider segments of the population and a threshold is crossed, the country will be confronted with disaster.
The UN and other international organizations will have a role to play. But considering that world organizations are so preoccupied with the frightening increase in the number of coronavirus victims
Tired of an endless conflict, many Afghans have left the country. In recent months, hordes of desperate people have been crossing the border to migrate to Europe via Iran and Turkey. Some have found refuge but many are still struggling to be accepted as asylum seekers in countries that are hit by the virus. As the economic systems of European countries come under severe strain, it may not be possible to allow a large number of asylum seekers in.
It would be right to say that the grim prospect of Covid-19 engulfing wide swathes of Afghanistan poses an existential threat to the country. To make matters worse, the government in Kabul is fighting a battle for its survival. Ashraf Ghani’s problems with his rival Abdullah are far from over and the continuing disharmony in the ranks of the rulers is reflected in a totally inadequate response to urgent issues like handling the pandemic.
The lack of leadership has resulted in an erratic approach to the enforcement of the Doha accord that was agreed to by the US and Taliban. The prisoner swap has not taken place as planned; only a small number have been released so far. The Taliban have become disenchanted with a policy of the Kabul government that appears to favour a delayed response to the release of prisoners. Ghani wants to prolong the status quo because he is the beneficiary– like many others in the US scheme of things.
If not handled with firm and decisive measures, Covid-19 will spell disaster for the country. Countries in the region bear responsibility for extending much needed assistance to the beleaguered country. This could be in the shape of financial assistance, medical kits for testing people, hospital equipment, the establishment of emergency hospitals, quarantine camps etc.
Countries around Afghanistan will face the music if the virus spreads uncontrollably in the country. Before it is too late, there is an urgent need for a coordinated, well thought out plan to be put into practice for preventing its indiscriminate spread.
The UN and other international organizations will have a role to play. But considering that world organizations are so preoccupied with the frightening increase in the number of coronavirus victims, it is doubtful they will be in any position to help. In addition, most international organizations will have to deal with the huge number of displaced people in countries like Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar etc and will have few resources to invest in dealing with the havoc of the virus in war-torn Afghanistan. Regional or neighbouring countries therefore have a special responsibility.
Because the Afghan people have already suffered for 40 years, they will not be in a position to mount any effective resistance on their own. Instead, the government in Kabul, the Taliban, aid agencies and regional countries have to come together to fight Covid-19 if Afghanistan– and indeed the region– is to be saved from a catastrophe.
Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade. The article originally appeared at Arab News Pakistan Edition and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.