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Afghanistan’s Covid-19 Bargain

June 24, 2020

By Abdullah Ahmadzai

While the coronavirus has created unprecedented challenges for nations worldwide, several studies, including one by the International Crisis Group, warn that the pandemic will hit poor and conflicted-affected countries like Afghanistan with particular force. At this moment, the death rates due to Covid in Afghanistan are low, but that is likely due to a shortage of data and a failure to accurately report causes of death.

As the virus threatens the already stressed, donor-dependent economy and increases pressure on our institutions of governance and the fragile peace efforts with the Taliban, there is widespread speculation among Afghans that the actual number of deaths must be much higher than the official tally. There is some truth to this speculation because of the limited number of tests available, the government’s monopoly on Covid-19 tests (private labs and hospitals are not allowed to perform them), and the fact that scores of people turn to traditional healers when they show symptoms of infection.

Rumors have flourished since the arrival of the pandemic about the possible curative value of everything from black tea to various herbal concoctions. While none of these folk remedies have been shown to be effective, people have flocked to them out of desperation. When a “clinic” in Kabul recently claimed to have developed a cure for the virus, it was immediately besieged by patients, many from other provinces. When the government stepped in to close the center, it sparked protests and demands to reopen it. After several more days the government closed the facility once again, this time permanently, after the “medicine” administered to patients was tested by the Ministry of Health and found to consist of various narcotics including opioids.

Effective measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19 currently seem impossible at any level. The government has announced reduced hours for civil servants (7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.), and schools and universities will remain closed until August, but in a country where the government’s own research shows that 52 percent of the population live in poverty and 45 percent are food insecure, widespread lockdowns to control the spread of the virus pose a threat more dire than the pandemic itself: the possibility of starvation.

A government-run lab testing for Covid-19 (Photo: Etilaatroz)

Based on what we have observed of public behavior and the government’s actions, the only way forward for Afghanistan may be to let the virus run its course until enough people have survived the infection to create herd immunity. Obviously, this natural “immunization” will come at a devastatingly high price in people’s lives. Estimates for developed nations suggest that 70 percent of the population would have to contract the coronavirus to establish herd immunity. With a population very roughly estimated at 35 million, Afghanistan would have to endure about 25 million cases of Covid-19, with all the suffering and desperation that would entail, including an unknown number of deaths.

I have been unable to keep track of the growing number of deaths among my own acquaintances, relatives, and friends’ families. But while recent reports of lost family members grow, they are most often attributed to heart attacks or long-term illness; few to Covid-19. While the official figure for Covid-19 deaths in Afghanistan currently stands at just over 500, a combination of stigma and lack of awareness often results in Covid-19 deaths being mislabeled as heart attack or typhoid fever.

While Covid-19 has been met with growing fear among ordinary Afghans, it is, on the other hand, offering an unprecedented opportunity to our people, institutions, businesses, and political actors to collectively respond to the pandemic and work together to minimize its impacts. One example is a “solidarity program,” begun first in Kabul and later replicated in other provinces. A web-based media outlet, the Daily Etilaatroz, called on homeowners who have tenants to reduce or waive rental payments while lockdowns in the cities prevent people from working. Many homeowners did in fact respond to the call, and they were publicly praised for their solidarity with people in need.

Another example is the Kocha Ba Kocha fundraising campaign, in which young volunteers have come together to respond to the economic impact of the pandemic by collecting donations and providing free food to families in need. A private bank launched a donation campaign through which 10,000 households received monthly supplies of food in Kabul and other provinces. And the government initiated a “free bread” program, under which poor families were identified with the help of community elders and given free bread for nearly a month. The government recently announced that it would extend the program for another month.

Crowds of people waiting to receive free bread from a bakery in Kabul. (Photo: Etilaatroz)

Following yet another contested presidential election, it was feared that disputes between the two leading candidates, President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, would continue to threaten the country’s future and stability. While it wasn’t necessarily the only motivation for resolving these disputes, the urgent need to respond to the pandemic certainly played a role in encouraging the two candidates to set aside their differences and finally sign a political agreement, which they did in May. Abdullah Abdullah is now leading a national council responsible for peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Finally, a cautious optimism about those negotiations has been created by the Taliban’s recent announcement of a limited ceasefire during three days of Eid in May, the government’s release of over 3,000 Taliban prisoners, and the Taliban’s agreement to hold the first meeting of long overdue intra-Afghan peace talks, which will take place in Doha, Qatar. While there are several other factors behind this progress—diplomatic interventions by the international community, the United States, and other regional actors, for example—the sense of urgency that Covid-19 has created seems to have given the negotiating parties a decisive push.

As the pandemic continues to pose risks to Afghans at all levels, The Asia Foundation’s Kabul office is planning to conduct a series of public perception surveys between July and December this year to help policymakers, donors, and development organizations understand the impact of Covid-19 on the economy, governance, and other aspects of people’s lives. We hope the information gathered in these interviews will contribute to policies and development planning for a comprehensive response to the crisis and a way forward for the country.

Abdullah Ahmadzai is The Asia Foundation’s country director in Afghanistan. He can be reached at abdullah.amadzai@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related topics: Covid-19

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