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Afghanistan, a landlocked country, suffering from 40 years of continuous conflict, now faces a deadly pandemic amid political turmoil.
COVID-19, a new coronavirus, has claimed approximately 34,000 human lives with further 735,560 confirmed cases, spreading across the globe. Many epidemiologists are of the opinion that the number of those infected could be in tens of millions but, as testing and reporting are limited, the precise figure cannot be confirmed. Besides the major health crisis, the virus has also trigged a global economic calamity. Businesses across the world are faltering to cope with the on-going pandemic, which has affected the world’s largest economies including the US, China, UK, Italy and many others.
China, the world’s second-largest economy with a nominal GDP of $14.14 trillion, lost $196 billion in January and February 2020, says ex-IMF official, Zhu Min. The outbreak has also had a significant impact on the Italian economy, and will likely tip the country into recession. Given the widespread economical impact of the virus and the continuous collapse of businesses including millions of job losses, the world is likely to face a grave financial depression.
Many countries were forced to prepare bailout packages, the US being first on the list offering approximately $2 trillion, China $394 billion, UK $411 billion and Germany with $750 billion bailout package, offering grant and loan to businesses, payment of employees’ salaries and boosting public welfare.
However, Afghanistan, with its fragile economy and frail health care system, is incomparable even with the regional countries when dealing with this deadly virus. The country has one of the worst healthcare systems in the world, with many of its citizens having little or no access to medical care. Years of civil war have ruined the healthcare infrastructure, and over the years, it has seen increasing rates of preventable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and respiratory infections. According to The World Bank, about 1 in 10 children will die before reaching the age of 5, and there are about 396 deaths per every 100,000 births – well above the 2015 world average of 216.
Lack of economic stability is another factor, which has weakened the government spinal to tackle the virus. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, but its economy has worsened sharply over the past five years with more than half the population living on less than a dollar a day according to a joint study by the European Union and Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Organisation. In order to keep pace with population growth and tens of thousands of qualified people, the economy must create some 400,000 new jobs a year. According to the World Bank, Afghanistan continues to face major economic headwinds, with growth slowing to 1.8 % in 2018. A notable decline in our exports and a fair increase in the imports fattened the trade deficit to around 35.3% of GDP in 2018.
Besides lacking an adequate health care system and economy, the country has two other fronts to engage with, namely the negotiations with the Taliban (i.e. the peace deal) and the internal political turmoil with both President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah has decided to battle for leadership. Following President Ghani’s inauguration, Abdullah Abdullah took a separate oath as the country’s president, pulling the county into a deeper crisis. The political showdown could not come at a more critical time for Afghanistan. The two political leaders have started appointing individuals in high-ranking positions, including as governors of different cities. Taliban seized this opportunity and commenced its offensive in the capital and throughout the country. A Taliban ambush on an Afghan army outpost, killed up to 24 Afghan security forces in Zabul, on 20th March 2020… Whilst the capital was in lockdown on 25th March, the terrorists entered a Sikh temple in the city and killed 25 civilians. In brief, since the peace deal between the US and Taliban was signed on 29th February, the Taliban have launched nearly 95 attacks on Afghan forces around the country, according to the Afghan Ministry of Defence (MoD). These attacks have put additional pressure on the Afghan government being able to slow the pace of this pandemic and keep the number of deaths as low as possible.
Afghanistan’s current COVID-19 containment measures consist of public awareness and placing certain regions of the country on lockdown. These measures are insufficient and incomparable to those in other countries. Although in terms of numbers, Afghanistan has registered only 165 cases, this is likely to increase drastically as the virus spreads across the country. The current expectation is that the COVID-19 virus will continue to spread within Afghanistan and, sadly, the country is not prepared to tackle this pandemic.
Experts have recommended countries must adopt different approaches to tackle COVID-19, as the pandemic affects different countries in different ways, and national policymakers must tailor their responses accordingly. Regional countries are issuing bailout packages, but Afghanistan has not adopted similar measures. A significant portion of the population is in the lower-income groups and live in poverty, including day-laborers, rickshaw-drivers and street vendors, which means imposing quarantine would simply deny these people the opportunity to earn enough to purchase basic essentials, such as food and medicine, for themselves and their dependents. Hoarding and a sudden price increase in commodities is another hurdle, which requires the government’s immanent attention. Restricting public movement might slow the spread of pandemic but would certainly increase the poverty and vulnerability of the population.
To ease the hurdles caused by COVID-19, the Afghan government could consider offering a bailout package by providing food and cash for those who are in desperate need. Similar bailout packages were offered by regional countries including India and Bangladesh. India offered a $22 billion package, which amounts to just 1% of India’s GDP – in stark contrast to the other counterparts. The package consists of free food and cash to its needy citizens. It is recognized that Afghanistan may not be economically in a position to offer a similar bailout package to its citizens but it must explore other alternatives i.e. appealing to the private sector to donate, as witnessed in India where Mukesh Ambani, TATA and many others have provided donations. The IMF has also announced its allocation of $50 billion for countries struggling with the outbreak. Iran has already asked for assistance with Bangladesh second in line. Afghanistan can also benefit from the same emergency fund. However, given the gravity of the pandemic, the funds must be managed effectively and not squandered due to corruption. On the ground, it is equally significant for the government to call upon fit and healthy adults to deliver vital supplies such as food and medicines to vulnerable people and provide regular assistance to those in self-isolation.
Finally, to rescue the public from the current trilateral quagmire comprising of COVID-19, Taliban and the political turmoil, it is imperative for all political leaders to put their differences aside and work together towards the public welfare and political stability.