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Safeguarding Afghanistan’s Vulnerable Millions From Coronavirus Threat

Volunteers in protective suits disinfect public areas in the capital Kabul to help in curbing the spread of the coronavirus infections on April 8.
Volunteers in protective suits disinfect public areas in the capital Kabul to help in curbing the spread of the coronavirus infections on April 8.

COVID-19 has presented the world with a new and devastating threat. The global death toll has passed 95,000, and the number of those infected with the novel coronavirus has risen above 1.6 million. Healthcare systems around the world, inundated with patients, have quickly become overwhelmed, and even the most state-of-the-art health services are at breaking point. For the many millions caught in the crosshairs of conflict whose access to health services is already limited or close to impossible, the pandemic brings a new terror.

“The COVID-19 storm is now coming to all theaters of conflict. The virus has shown how swiftly it can move across borders, devastate countries, and upend lives. The worst is yet to come,” warned UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres days ago, following a call for a global humanitarian cease-fire in March.

The call, endorsed by over 70 member states and regional partners, has seemingly also been heeded by several armed groups. Groups in Colombia signaled a desire to stop fighting as the contagion spreads, and guerrilla groups in the Philippines agreed to observe a cease-fire to help the country deal with the pandemic. On April 9, Saudi officials announced the country’s forces would begin a cease-fire in Yemen amid the pandemic.

In Afghanistan, reaching a humanitarian cease-fire is complicated by a fragile peace process and political gridlock.

With the outbreak of the coronavirus the U.S. envoy for Afghan peace, European Union, UN Security Council, Organization for Islamic States, Russia and Iran, among others, have urged all parties in the country to observe a cease-fire on humanitarian grounds. The Afghan government, for its part, has repeatedly called for a cease-fire in recognition of the common threat of COVID-19. The Taliban recently signaled that they might agree to a cease-fire in areas under their control, though significant questions remain about what conditions would precipitate a cease-fire, if they would attack health professionals in areas outside their control, or how many COVID-19 cases would need to be confirmed in any given area for them to implement a cease-fire. On April 8, there was little sign of a cease-fire, as the Taliban attacked security forces in Balkh, killing at least seven civilians.

Active conflict creates new challenges and exacerbates existing ones such as security and access, making it difficult for humanitarian and medical actors to reach vulnerable and at-risk communities.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. It now has 521 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 15 deaths, including a doctor who died earlier this week after contracting the virus. In recent weeks, more than 200,000 Afghans have crossed the border from Iran, where over 62,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 4,000 have died, the highest recorded death toll in the Middle East. Tens of thousands have also returned from Pakistan in recent days, which is among the worst-affected countries in South Asia. While there have been attempts to test people crossing the border, the country does not have the capacity or the resources to implement robust control and containment mechanisms at border crossings. Last week, the Afghan government moved quickly to impose lockdowns in a several cities across the country as a preventive measure.

Although hugely challenging, containing the spread of the virus is essential in Afghanistan. Over 40 years of conflict, coupled with widespread poverty, have resulted in an impoverished public healthcare system that is extremely precarious under even the best of circumstances. Afghanistan has one of the most vulnerable populations in the world, including millions of internally displaced people and rural communities where healthcare provisions are either very limited or nonexistent. The country has recently faced multiple health crises, increasing the likelihood that the coronavirus will spread and will quickly overwhelm the system.

Highlighting these concerns, over 70 international and Afghanistan-based humanitarian, aid, civil society groups and activists have come together to push for a cease-fire across the country. The joint call, coordinated by Time4RealPeace, is backed by dozens of groups from around the world, including Oxfam International, Norwegian Refugee Council, International Civil Society Network, Mercy Corps, Help Refugees, CARE, Alliance for Peacebuilding, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Afghan Women’s Network, Madre, BAAG, Afghanistan Civil Society Forum, The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Global Witness, and asks that three immediate actions be taken by all sides:

• A full and immediate cease-fire ahead of resolutions being reached in the intra-Afghan talks;

• A boosting of immediate preparedness and response operations;

• The protection of human rights, women’s rights, refugee protection laws and norms, and the space for independent civil society to operate in safety.

Citing the country’s compromised healthcare system, chronic shortages in healthcare equipment and medicines, as well as escalating violence, the joint statement emphasizes the risk of large-scale deaths across the country if all sides to the conflict refuse to observe a cease-fire.

Only through a cease-fire and cooperation can the country respond to this new threat and implement measures to protect the lives of all Afghans. This is not the time for political maneuvering or grandstanding. COVID-19 will not be stopped by borders or nationality, faction or faith. The only way to prevent senseless deaths is to respond to this global health crisis together. Quick and responsible action to help stem this crisis is the best way for all parties to demonstrate a real, long-term commitment to peace and to strengthen their positions at the negotiating table.

Sahar Halaimzai, an Afghan writer, advocate, and human rights campaigner, leads the Afghan peace campaign Time4RealPeace. Rahela Sidiqi, is a co-founder of Time4RealPeace and founding director of Farkhunda Trust for Afghan Women's Education. She is a former senior adviser of the Afghanistan Civil Service Commission and a senior social development adviser of the United Nations-Habitat Afghanistan. These views are the authors’ alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.