Coronavirus in Afghanistan: The pandemic hasn’t stopped the government and the Taliban from fighting

The Taliban in Afghanistan signed a peace agreement with the United States on February 29 and stopped attacking American forces there.

But there’s no peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government — which means fighting between the two has continued unabated, even amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 20, Taliban fighters attacked an outpost in Zabul province and killed at least 24 Afghan soldiers, which caused outrage across the country. One day later, an Afghan government airstrike in Kunduz province killed 13 civilians, including 10 children. Two weeks ago, Afghan troops killed or wounded at least nine Taliban insurgents in Jawzjan province.

“This is wrong, and it needs to stop. Especially now,” said Dr. Sayed Shah, a medic from Afghanistan’s Baghlan province. Shah’s concerns are shared by many Afghans who are frustrated that the Taliban and the Afghan National Army are continuing to fight while the coronavirus spreads across the country.

As of April 15, Afghanistan has reported 784 Covid-19 cases and 26 deaths, but observers and medics on the ground believe the real number of infections could be much higher. A majority of the infected people are from Herat province, which shares a border with Iran, a country that has been hit heavily by the pandemic.

Health workers measure the temperature of Afghan refuges as they enter Afghanistan at a border crossing with Iran, in Herat province, on March 18. Over the past few month, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have been expelled from Iran.
Hamed Sarfarazi/AP

A team of designers develop two types of inexpensive ventilators using Toyota car parts to help hospitals care for patients infected with the coronavirus, in Herat province on April 8.
Hamed Safarazi/AP

Overall, there is a shortage of coronavirus tests and ventilators in the country. The World Health Organization (WHO) has provided Afghanistan 1,500 testing kits, yet only two laboratories in the country are equipped with machines that can process test samples. And according to the Ministry of Public Health, Afghanistan only has 300 ventilators — for the entire country.

International observers have urged both the Afghan government and the Taliban to immediately stop fighting and start working with the United Nations and aid agencies to improve access to health care to save as many lives as possible.

Unfortunately, it seems both parties are unwilling to cooperate. And they’re not the only ones: The Afghan government itself is divided, with two rival politicians both claiming to be the legitimate president of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to spread.

“A very toilsome procedure”

Every day, 50 to 100 patients visit Shah’s small medical office. “We try testing everyone who was in Herat or who used to have contact with people from there. We are also focusing on people with general symptoms,” Shah said.

He described how he and other medics were taking samples of suspected infected patients and sending them to the capital, Kabul. But — in part because of the ongoing fighting — that’s “a very toilsome procedure,” he told Vox.

The route to Kabul takes at least four hours just because of the distance, and includes passing through the mountainous Salang Pass with its decades-old roads. But often, even travel within Baghlan itself is virtually impossible because of the almost daily skirmishes between insurgents and security forces.

“Baghlan always used to be a violence hot spot, but these days it’s totally unbearable. They [soldiers and insurgents] should lay down their arms and work as health workers to save lives,” Mohammad Shahzad, a local merchant, told me.

Afghan security forces spray antiseptic water to combat the coronavirus in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on April 9.
Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto via Getty Images

On at least one occasion recently, power in the region was cut off due to clashes between Taliban fighters and Afghan soldiers in Baghlan. “They endanger the lives of patients. It was not just us who lost power. Large parts of the country were affected,” Shah said.

The Taliban denied that their operations caused the power outage and claimed instead that a power pole was damaged “because of weather circumstances.”

Attacks by government forces are escalating too. A recent airstrike killed two children in Baghlan’s Chashm-e Sher region and wounded several other civilians.

All of this is going on while physicians like Shah struggle to get the basic supplies they need to test and treat their patients. “I don’t have any tools to test anyone. Many local medics all over Afghanistan are in the same situation. We don’t have a simple laboratory for tests,” Shah said. “Let’s be realistic. We are not prepared for this crisis.”

To be fair, few if any countries were adequately prepared to deal with this pandemic. But Afghanistan’s political situation made it even less prepared than most.

The timing of the political chaos couldn’t be worse

Incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah both declared themselves the winners of the country’s presidential election in October 2019, and both conducted separate inauguration ceremonies last month. Several politicians and strongmen are reportedly busy trying to resolve the differences between Ghani and Abdullah, but no official word has been released.

It’s not the first time this has happened: After the 2014 presidential elections, Abdullah disputed the results showing that Ghani had won and refused to concede. Fearing the collapse of the political system and the outbreak of violence, then-Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated a compromise: Ghani was declared president, while Abdullah was given the newly created position of CEO, a pro forma head of government position that does not actually exist in Afghanistan’s constitution.

But coming amid the coronavirus pandemic, the timing of the political chaos this time around couldn’t be worse. Rather than working together to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Ghani and Abdullah are vying for power, each trying to depict himself as the country’s savior, the one best prepared to lead the fight against the virus.

President Ghani and his cabinet members appear with masks and gloves from time to time and have stopped hugging each other when greeting. They also mentioned the virus in several speeches and statements and called on the people to take the disease seriously.

President Ghani, center, walks with journalists after a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul, on March 1.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images
Health professionals wait to check the temperature of guests attending President Ghani’s swearing-in ceremony, at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on March 9.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Officials and guests react after hearing loud blasts during President Ghani’s swearing in ceremony on March 9.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

In reality, though, neither camp is succeeding in providing an adequate response to the crisis. Additionally, the US government said it was cutting $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan this year, and potentially another $1 billion in 2021, after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to persuade Ghani and Abdullah in a meeting in Kabul in late March to support a unified government.

Meanwhile, the Taliban has started its own anti-coronavirus campaign. In Herat’s Shindand district, which is largely controlled by the insurgents, a Taliban Health Commission gathered “to raise public awareness” and “prevent the spread of the virus.”

“The spread of Covid-19 is an important issue for us. We have taken all measures to fight against it as strong as possible, and we also have a structured plan,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told Vox.

He said his group has already put several people under quarantine and that Taliban fighters are traveling to remote villages via motorcycles to distribute leaflets, soap bars, and hand sanitizer. “We are especially focusing on returnees from Iran and told them that they should start a self-quarantine,” Mujahid said.

With the country’s leadership bitterly divided and Afghan and Taliban forces continuing their bloody civil war, Afghanistan’s response to the pandemic has been dysfunctional, to say the least.

“The spiraling COVID-19 crisis puts millions of Afghans at risk, yet Afghan officials are consumed with infighting and the Taliban with adversarial posturing,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The two sides need to work together with the UN and humanitarian agencies to ensure that aid reaches the whole country, or a dire situation will become catastrophic.”

A few glimmers of hope that things may be improving

Two weeks ago, the Taliban declared they would uphold a ceasefire in areas under their control if they are hit by a coronavirus outbreak. The group also said they would guarantee the security of health and aid workers traveling to their areas offering assistance to prevent the spread of the virus.

And, after days of waiting, Herat has finally been put under quarantine by the government. Kabul is also facing a shutdown, and for the first time in years, many famous places like the Mandaii, the capital’s historic open-air market, are almost completely empty.

Still, many Afghans are not satisfied with the reaction from either side regarding the crisis and have decided to take things into their own hands.

Some well-known Afghan singers have composed songs about Covid-19 and shared them on social media. One of them, sung by famous singer Farhad Darya, was even used by local security forces to raise awareness.

A man rests after a hike during a government-imposed lockdown in Kabul on April 12.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

In Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Khost, young activists are taking the fight against the spread of the virus seriously. “People, especially in remote areas, don’t know anything about the virus. They have not ever heard of corona. It would end in a catastrophe if they remain uninformed,” said Shah Mohammad Takal, a local activist.

In recent days, Takal and other activists have reached out to remote villages to try to inform people, many of whom are illiterate, about the dangers of Covid-19. They also printed leaflets with symbols to make the information as comprehensible as possible and spread them in villages and on the streets in the city.

These efforts seem to be having an effect, as measures have begun to ban overcrowding in public places in several provinces. In Khost, several hotels have already closed, and all types of meetings have been prohibited for the time being.

Public health officials are also trying to scan many travelers coming into the city by taking their temperatures or asking them questions about their health. Over the past several days, 8,000 masks, soap bars, and blankets have been distributed to the public in Khost.

Still, Takal said, “It’s just a matter of time until we record the first infection in Khost.”

“Western countries are struggling [to fight the virus], so you can imagine how difficult it is for Afghanistan,” Takal said. “But we try our best.”

Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist and author and is the founder of Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims. Find him on Twitter @Emran_Feroz.

Mohammad Zaman is a journalist based in Khost, Afghanistan, who regularly works for Afghan media outlets and radio channels.

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