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, Marquez’ metaphor of cholera, which strikes unexpectedly and can lead 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, as well as the Taliban, can work together.
Even a small outbreak could cause a major health crisis
Officially, Afghanistan has registered just 273 cases as of April 2, mostly due to its extremely low testing capacity – by March 16, only 250 tests had been conducted. Numbers of unreported cases are likely to be much higher, given that more than 115,000 Afghans have returned from Iran, one of the epicenters of the pandemic, since January. The Health Ministry warned that up to 75 percent of the population could become infected, with more than 100,000 potentially dying.
Even a small outbreak could cause a major health crisis, especially if the fighting, which injures thousands 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. Potentially worsening outcomes, the ability of the Afghan government to effectively deal with COVID-19 is further degraded by the ongoing constitutional crisis stemming from the disputed results of the 2019 presidential elections.
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 centers. With many more cases anticipated and key equipment such as masks and ventilators in short supply, these measures are insufficient and major international assistance is needed. A lockdown of Kabul and other cities since March 28th aims to slow the spread down, 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 resulting losses. Many are unable to fully observe social distancing either due to crowded multi-generational homes 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. Pakistan and India, sought-after alternatives 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, wheat imports from Central Asia are crucial.
In addition to domestic and regional challenges, Afghanistan’s outcomes lie predominantly beyond its span of control. More than 75 percent 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, donors may prioritize short term humanitarian aid over medium- and long-term development goals. These impacts will only add to the quagmire created by 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 checks at hospitals in areas under their control. Moreover, 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 direct deliberations over the release of Taliban fighters in government custody. If an immediate cease-fire, 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, assuring 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. One might hope it is converted into the required decisive action.
The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.
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