For us Afghans Violence and Conflict are more dangerous than the Pandemic
In April and May this year in Kabul more people have died from the ongoing conflicts and violence than from COVID-19. R Musawi describes how the pandemic, fear, death, corruption, and explosions affect everyday life in her city in a country where the price of food has recently multiplied three or four times, where two million people who work in Iran cannot get to their work, and where the access to health care is highly inadequate.
Afghanistan is a country that has been wracked with conflict for around 4 decades. Such prolonged conflict has claimed hundreds of victims who have paid for these wars with their lives, limbs, or through being forced into exile, whether to neighbour countries or further afield within Europe. According to the UN political statistics office in Afghanistan, in the last decade alone over a hundred thousand civilians have been killed or wounded, and according to government statistics, between 2014 and 2019 more than forty five thousand soldiers were killed. The number of injured insurgents, most of whom are Afghan, is also reported to be in the thousands.
When the Coronavirus (COVID-19) hit Afghanistan the country was already wracked with multi-dimensional war, a weak economy, and an uncertain fate. While the contagion has spread through the whole world, because of its open (uncontrolled) borders with neighbouring countries, especially Iran, Afghanistan was especially threatened by the virus. There are around 2.5 million migrant Afghans in Iran. When COVID-19 reached Iran, the country was enduring heavy sanctions. Most Afghan migrants in Iran are manual labourers and, in the shadow of the US sanctions and the stagnation of the economy after the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in Iran, many had to return to their country. Between one and two thousand people cross the border in Herat from Iran to Afghanistan daily, and this alone dramatically increased the spread of COVID-19 in Afghanistan. The first four cases of COVID-19 were recorded on the 5th of Hoot [23rd February] in Herat; these patients had all recently returned from Iran. For Afghanistan, which has a limited health service, it has been very difficult to identify or examine those who who returned. The only means at the Government’s disposal was measuring people’s temperature, and they did this to identify those returning from Iran who may be carrying the virus. It didn’t take long until the virus started spreading among the general population.
Despite the lockdown imposed on many large cities including the capital, the number of people afflicted with the virus today, August 2020, exceeds ten million, and since the beginning of the outbreak in this country until now, and around 1200 people have lost their lives owing to the virus. However, the number of casualties of violence, especially suicide attacks, was during spring much more deadly for Afghans than COVID-19.
In a Da’esh (ISIS) attack on a 100-bed hospital in the west of Kabul in may, tens of mothers, newborns, and health workers were killed. On the same day, over fifty people were killed or wounded in a suicide attack by a group linked to the Islamic State – Khorasan Branch In the Shiveh district of Nangahar Province in the east of Afghanistan. During the same month, security forces reported that serious conflict in regions including Balkh, Boghlan, Takhar, and Badakhshan in the north of the country had claimed civilian victims. Soon after, explosions of Lari and Hamuri vehicles filled with explosive material outside Military Institutions and the Afghan Intelligence Organisation in Ghazni and Paktia provinces also caused many casualties. Civilians were – and are also killed daily by roadside landmines in certain parts of Afghanistan.
According to the Afghan Security Council, over 576 civilians were killed or wounded as a result of Taliban attacks alone in the month of Ramadan (23 April – 23 May). These casualties occurred in 30 provinces in Afghanistan and included women and children. At least 146 civilians were killed and 430 sustained injuries. According to the latest UN-UNAMA report, in the month of April the Taliban was responsible for 208 civilian casualties, an increase of 35 percent from April 2019 and at a similar level to March, which saw 202 such casualties. Tucked away in the report was the number of casualties attributed to Afghan government forces, which in April 2020 reached 172, an increase of 38 per cent compared with the same period in 2019. According to the UNAMA report, in May over a hundred civilians were killed or wounded in Taliban or Islamic State – Khorasan Branch attacks.
A simple calculation from the statistics: if the statistical information from the Afghan Security Council about the number of casualties from conflict in a one month period, and the figures for the COVID-19 casualties over a three month period are compared, it can be seen that the number of civilian deaths alone from conflict in 30 days is the same as the number of victims of COVID-19 in a 90 day period. Similarly, a comparison of the UNAMA figures for civilian casualties in the 50 day period running through April to the middle of May with the same figures of COVID-19, casualties shows that in just over a month and a half, the number of civilian casualties of conflict was three times the number of COVID-19 casualties in the whole of Afghanistan.
In may, after three months since the COVID-19 outbreak in Afghanistan, the level of conflict had also escalated, and the Taliban and government forces reported the deaths of dozens of fighters on a daily basis. If there were on average ten deaths from both sides daily (lower than in truth), in ninety days the number of military (non-civilian) deaths would be nine hundred, which is more than four times the number of deaths from COVID-19 in Afghanistan (216 deaths until the 23rd of May) in a similar period. Superficially the combined deaths of government forces, Taliban forces and civilians resulting from conflict in the past three months is around ten times the amount of deaths from COVID-19 in the same period.
With regards to the conflict and COVID-19, people have been asking themselves, “When conflict claims tens of people each day in this way, why should we be afraid of the threat of two hundred deaths from COVID-19?” Such a question and the idea behind it, especially prevalent in rural areas and areas suffering from conflict, might have reduced the fear of COVID-19 at the time, which brought the whole world to its knees. People simply didn’t take it seriously.
The lockdown period, where people can’t leave their homes for fear of spreading the virus, became very expensive for many people. For others, like me, it has allowed an opportunity to spend more time with myself. During this time I was able to work on my own psychological struggles, linked to the trauma of receiving constant news of conflict and casualties in Afghanistan, and to get into a slightly better psychological situation. I have read books and cooked food, which I used to pay a lot of money for when not at home. In the past I very rarely saw my father, and it has been a silver lining of the Coronavirus outbreak that I hd the possibility to seeing him more. The most difficult part of lockdown for me has been working from home, since, even after investments of millions of dollars, we still don’t have regular electricity in Kabul. During the lockdown, power stations between Salang and Kabul was attacked several times by opposition forces, who plunged the inhabitants of Kabul and other cities into darkness for days and nights. Like many others, there was nothing I could do, but to wait with doing my work. This caused me great distress. While the volume of my work increased, there was no electricity, and the internet was weak and inefficient.
On a broader level, one of the social implications of lockdown in Afghanistan, a country where many people live in poverty and are educated to a low level, has been that the rate of domestic violence drastically increased. I have a neighbour who is beaten by her husband, and was forced to constantly hearing the sound of her cries and wails daily. I called the police, but they didn’t pay any attention. Finally the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (IHRC) released a call for people to contact them should they see instances of violence around them. I did so, telling them what was happening to my neighbour, and they promised to take care of it. Later the sound of my neighbours cries became less frequent.
Afghans are very traditional and stuck in their ways. When COVID-19 first spread in China and a number of other countries, I went to buy disinfectant and wore a facemask and gloves. Then a taxi driver said to me: “Sister, your faith is lacking if you are afraid of the Coronavirus”. I said nothing in reply. Religious people believe that since they were Muslims – the Coronavirus would not harm them.
The economic implications of the virus outbreak and the lockdown for a nation where most people earn less than five dollars per day have been extremely serious. A large part of the Afghan population get by spending their daily wages day on food for that very day. The virus outbreak and the lockdown has been extremely difficult for these people. At first the government planned to distribute basic provisions, such as rice, oil, and lentils, to those in need, but when the process began, news spread of corruption in the distribution process and in some parts of Kabul, only four kilograms of wheat reached families. The government was forced to review its plan and now bakeries have been contracted to distribute bread to families in need daily. But the gathering of people outside the bakeries and the lack of social distancing measures increased the risk that the virus would spread.
As I said earlier, health care in Afghanisathan is very poor. People in remote areas of the coutry do not have access to healthcare at all. When the coronavirus outbreak spread to the country, most health centres did not have the means to test it. In Kabul, there is only one health centre, called ”Afghan Japan”, which cares for COVID-19 patients. There a number of the samples taken from people suspected of having COVID-19 were lost, and they had to re-do the tests.
The Afghan Government, with the help of its foreign allies, early tried to stem the outbreak of COVID-19, and in May Afghanstan was one of the countries with the lowest number of casualties in the region. However, it could not reduce the number of casualties of the great plague that is war. People are waiting for similar steps in which the government, the Taliban, social and political forces and foreign countries took to counter the COVID-19 outbreak to be taken to end the conflict too, worried that war is more deadly than COVID-19. Now, in august, the number of Coronavirus casualties is slowly getting lower (August 2020).
But with a simple calculation, durind spring, all parties could understand how a ceasefire might had reduced the casualties of such a contagious virus in Afghanistan and in that way potentially reduce the suffering of the Afghan people.