USIP is closely following the effects of the novel coronavirus around the world and we’re particularly concerned about its effects in fragile states and conflict zones, which are especially vulnerable to the impacts of these kinds of outbreaks. This week, our Scott Smith looks at the potential impact on Afghanistan, how NGOs and religious organizations are working to combat the spread, and what it means for the Afghan peace process.
Hi, I'm Scott Smith, senior expert at USIP, where we're closely following the coronavirus, and particularly the effects it has on conflict zones and fragile societies. Recently, we published a Q&A on the effect the coronavirus is having on Afghanistan in particular. I invite you to check that out.
In the meantime, we received a number of questions from some readers on social media and I'd like to take the time now to answer a few of them. The first question is from Christopher Davis on Linkedin, and he asks: "What infrastructure is in place for reliable testing for COVID-19?"
The unfortunate answer to that question is: there's very little infrastructure in place. Right now, there have been only about 1,400 tests conducted in Afghanistan, showing about 80 people who have been confirmed to have the virus. Over the past weekend, the Ministry of Public Health established a new testing center that will allow for about a thousand people more to be tested per day, but this is a very small number compared to the 35 million population in Afghanistan, and given the vulnerabilities in Afghanistan as a country of war, a poor country, a country with weak infrastructure, has for the transmission and spread of this virus. So, this lack of testing means the Afghan government is very, very far behind in designing its response to the virus crisis, and it means that there's probably a lot more propagation of the virus among the population than we can be aware of right now.
The second question comes from Rafael Davis on LinkedIn, who asks: "What role are NGOs and religious organizations playing in combating the spread of COVID-19 in Afghanistan?"
One of the legacies of the civil war is that NGOs are the main service providers for health care, so the Ministry of Public Health contracts in each province a different NGO to provide a basic package of health services. That means that almost any effort that's being done at the central and provincial level to combat or treat the virus is being done by an NGO. The problem is, they have very few resources, and even in normal circumstances, there are a lot of complaints about the fact that people can't get the basic health care they need, or they need to travel very far to get it. So, there's no question that as this virus spreads unseen for the moment because of the lack of testing, it will put a huge amount of stress on the capacity of these NGOs.
The questioner also asked about religious leaders. It's not so clear. There's a mixed reaction. One thing I've noticed, however, is that the mosques are not closed in the way that we've closed churches and other institutions of worship in this country, so there are still people congregating on Fridays and other days for prayers. Finally, it's interesting to note that the Taliban have gone out of their way to issue a number of videos showing that they're taking this crisis seriously, and in the villages and districts that they control, they're distributing packages with sanitizer and masks, and giving people instructions on how to avoid transmitting or catching the virus, so you have a lot of different reactions, in different ways, in different parts of the country, but I think one thing they have in common is the lack of knowledge about how serious the problem is and the lack of resources to address it once we do find out more clearly exactly how serious this problem is.
The third question comes from Twitter. Abdullah Etlaiba asks: "Will the White House's preoccupation with coronavirus and the upcoming elections affect U.S. focus on the Afghanistan file?"
For the past year and a half, the U.S. focus on the Afghanistan file has been on a negotiation with the Taliban on the terms of our withdrawal from from the country. And it's been clear goal of the Trump Administration to try and disengage as much as possible from Afghanistan. The culmination of that effort so far was an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban on the 29th of February to begin, within four months, withdrawing half of our troops. Now, that timing will coincide with the worst part of the crisis, the coronavirus crisis in the U.S., and the worst part of it, or the middle part of it, in Afghanistan. It's hard for me to see, with governments distracted by dealing with the corona crisis and with a large withdrawal underway, how, at the end of the crisis when things hopefully come back to some sort of normal, Afghanistan will be more important than before. I think in the end the withdrawal of the troops, the distraction, and the need for a peace negotiation, will basically mean that our focus will continue being: how do we withdraw all of our troops under a situation where the Taliban and the government are able to agree among themselves some sort of new political order?
Thanks, everyone, for the questions! Let's continue the conversation on social media at #COVIDandConflict and USIP.org, our website, where we'll have more articles on how we're covering this in Afghanistan and in many other countries in conflict. Thank you.