Written by Anirban Dutta
Research Associate at Law & Order
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
The pandemic first hit Afghanistan in March 2020. After the return of migrants from Iran due to constrained financial resources, forced repatriation, the virus spread rapidly in Afghanistan (Sharifi & Schmeding, 2020). Afghanistan still remains a country devastated by conflict, political instability, and economic insecurity twenty one years after the US intervention of 2001. After 2001, Afghanistan has attempted to rebuild its infrastructure and maintain a functioning state, but the country has perpetually been subject to external shocks; the COVID-19 pandemic being the most recent one amidst the ongoing political turmoil.
The Afghans have faced numerous challenges to cope with the pandemic like any other country in the world. Due to its long-drawn state of conflict, the country has experienced several socio-economic challenges such as increasing inflation and unemployment. The pandemic has further worsened these challenges. The poor financial resources and the existing gaps have decimated the Afghan health care system. Afghanistan has failed to provide essential services and functions necessary to tackle the ongoing pandemic. The challenges include low testing capacity, unprepared government institutions (Wardak, 2020). Afghanistan after 2001 has rebuilt its infrastructure and tried to build a functioning state. As per the latest report, the infection rates have surged to 77, 963 cases (Saif, 2021). The Taliban has used the pandemic for its own gain by waging wars while calling for a ceasefire in the initial period and weakening the government. With the withdrawal of the US troops from the country amidst the pandemic and the spread of the coronavirus has weakened the institutions of the previous government. The renewed violence by the Taliban in the aftermath will affect the solidarity among the Afghan community to tackle the pandemic.
This article will first explore the twin threats of the pandemic and the sustained conflict in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it will also analyze the implications of renewed violence after the U.S withdrawal on the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan.
Political Uncertainty Amidst the Pandemic
Political uncertainty is a recipe for conflict. In the case of Afghanistan, the withdrawal of U.S troops from the country has weakened the civilian government which collapsed eventually. The weakening of the institutions will further exacerbate the conflict which, in turn, will hurt the pandemic response by any future government. Afghanistan lacks the necessary health care infrastructure to contain the spread of the virus. The country has four doctors per thousand patients with 172 hospitals (Acerra, Iskyan, Qureshi, & Sharma, 2009). The fragilities of the health care infrastructure are not new. The health care facilities come under attack repeatedly. The World Health Organization reported 34 attacks on the health care facilities in the first quarter of 2019 (Kumar, 2020). The Taliban has records of attacking the health care infrastructure, even facilities that are treating coronavirus infected patients (Kumar, 2020). The attack by the Taliban gunmen on the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital has killed twenty people and two newborn babies. A report published by the U.N Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has recorded twelve attacks on the health care infrastructure from 11th March - 23rd May 2020.
The Taliban’s takeover will impede donors from giving funds necessary to run essential services like health care. The response by the previous government led by Ghani against the pandemic is riddled with corruption, lack of sufficient resources, mismanagement of funds, and lack of clarity regarding the role of various ministries.
The event of ‘inauthentic sanitiser’ is a case in point where the hand sanitisers acquired by the country had no alcohol content (Wardak, 2020). Such a scenario is capitalized by the Taliban. It has created awareness programs in the areas under its occupation to position itself as an alternative to the former government led by Ghani (Kapur, 2021).
The already vulnerable healthcare system in Afghanistan against the backdrop of prolonged conflict will further limit the existing government's response to the pandemic. The costs of continued violence in the future and lack of international support to the Taliban led government will be ultimately borne by the Afghan citizens in the near future. These costs will further magnify the problems of inflation, unemployment, mortality rates, infection rates and other socio-economic inequalities due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Ahmadi & L. Kakar, 2020). It is a need of the hour for the creation of improved security architecture for improvements in Afghanistan’s health care system.
Implications of Renewed Violence after the US Withdrawal on the COVID-19 Response
Reduced COVID-19 awareness in the Afghan society
The Islamic scholars released fatwas that all religious ceremonies will be conducted at home, the government developed an app to counter the virus and it generated a sense of volunteerism, generosity, care and responsibility among the people (Wardak, 2020). A reversal to the conflict has created disillusionment in the Afghan society. The awareness campaigns in the past has helped to reduce misinformation, encouraged precautionary measures against the pandemic in Afghanistan. The renewed violence will backtrack whatever awareness that has been created regarding the pandemic by the various sections of Afghan society. The COVID-19 awareness by the Taliban has backtracked after the peace deal in Qatar since the Taliban has killed Afghan civilians instead of spreading awareness.
Heavy securitization and the pandemic
The pandemic has further strengthened the Taliban’s position since the military installations of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) became infection hotspots. The virus has spread 60-90 per cent among the ANSF units as per the report by senior Afghan security officials (George, Tassal, & Hassan, 2020). The virus has severely affected the number of forces at operations and outpost stations (Blanc, 2020). This has proved advantageous to the Taliban. The power vacuum created as a result of the US withdrawing its troops and the high infection rates among Afghan military personnel has enabled the Taliban to utilize the situation for military advantages (Blanc, 2020).
The pandemic is more than a health emergency. The conflict has influenced the lives of Afghan people for decades. As the Taliban controls Afghanistan, there is a high risk of a refugee crisis and virus transmission in the refugee camps. There are claims that many people living in refugee camps reported positive (“Afghan refugees want anti-COVID-19 vaccination,” 2021). The ongoing uncertainty on the ground may turn into a more significant health care crisis soon. Therefore, the declining capacity and the ongoing disturbance has left little hope and optimism. The pandemic offered the opportunity for the Taliban to hold significant advantages on the battlefield.
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