Afghanistan: Cure WorseThan Pandemic
“War is in the background of what we fear is coming up on us: starvation,” a friend anxiously told me recently about Afghanistan’s efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
Self-isolated in the Presidential Palace in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani, via Skype, has ordered a strict lockdown until at least May 22. Under the lockdown, all domestic flights are suspended (international flights were grounded in March), all schools, universities and non-essential government offices are closed, and most businesses are on shutdown. Police checkpoints are setup on roads and highways to block unnecessary movements which often inhibit critical commercial convoys moving across the landlocked country, particularly from and to the capital city Kabul with an estimated population of over five million.
While there are reportedly enough essential commodities in Kabul and other major cities, food items have become far more expensive. “According to WFP’s market monitoring, the prices of wheat flour, rice, pulses or cooking oil have increased by 15 per cent between 14 March and 4 May, while the cost of pulses, sugar and rice increased by 14 per cent, 7 per cent, and 9 per cent, respectively, over the same period,” reads a May 6 situational report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Food prices have gone up while peoples’ purchasing power has dropped by about 18 percent, according to the same OCHA report.
Afghans are already among the poorest people in the world. Over 34 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated 33 million population lived with less than US$1 a day even before the pandemic hit the war-torn nation.
In an apparent effort to prevent a possible nationwide hunger, the government has started free distribution of bread to hundreds of thousands of individuals in Kabul and plans to extend the scheme to other cities.
In the eyes of Western donors, which provide upwards of 60 percent of Afghan Government’s overall budget, the government of Ashraf Ghani is meeting the standard checkmarks for the pandemic management. Shutting down economies and forcing people to stay home might be a feasible exercise in wealthy Western countries, but doing exactly the same in Afghanistan, even pretending to do so, can have far worse consequences.
Even in the world’s richest country, markets are reopening under pure economic rationale. The U.S. has the worst infection & morbidity figures in the world, and yet President Trump and governors from across the country are tearing down strict lockdown measures in order to allow the economy to breathe again and avoid an economic collapse. The debates around public health and national economy are ongoing, but macroeconomic policymakers seem to be heading towards some painful decisions — reopening even if it exposes the poorer and most vulnerable people to greater pandemic risks.
In contrast to the U.S., Afghanistan has no strong institutional, economic, social and governance tools to effectively adopt and execute similar pandemic lockdown measures. On top of other serious socio-economic ills, Afghanistan is in the midst of a horrible internal war that has not abated even during the pandemic.
Afghanistan cannot fully implement the very same pandemic lockdown plans that are practiced in Europe and North America. Neither should it pretend that it’s doing so.
Childbirth kills tens of thousands of Afghan mothers annually. Even preventable diseases such as diarrhea kill tens of thousands of Afghans every year. If Afghanistan cannot stop preventable illnesses, how can it prevent a pandemic which has shaken even the most developed countries?
Instead of blocking, Afghanistan should reopen its critical commercial and financial networks. It should not ground all flights and ban trucks, rather should enable and facilitate commodities and passengers to travel safely across the country. Markets should reopen and people should be able to work in an environment of enhanced awareness about ways to avoid infections. It should reopen hospitals and deliver live-saving services to pregnant mothers and sick children. It should focus on fighting corruption that ills almost every part of the society. It should reopen courts and the judicial system to deliver justice to the thousands of pending criminal cases. These shouldn’t necessarily happen exactly like before the pandemic — they should be executed with some absolutely necessary health limitations, but far better and more effectively than in the past.
The current measures President Ghani has ordered via Skype from his self-confinements, have the potentials of plunging Afghanistan into deeper social and economic crises. While his VPs and all cabinet members assemble in the palace rooms for weekly meetings, it shows no strong leadership only for the leader, the President, to always speak from a monitor. The President must display strength and courage, even take some personal risks sometimes, to lead the nation in difficult times. He should step out of his safety bubble and should encourage the nation to resume normalcy step by step.