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Afghanistan and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Vrinda Aggarwal, Alison Wright, Narissa Brennan, Rap Escalona, Kendra Hallding, Carly Madeley, Ashley Seatter

Afghanistan faces a humanitarian disaster as COVID-19 spreads through a country already suffering from the atrocities of war and the consequential poverty and food insecurity. [1] The number of reported cases is 36,937 with a current total of 1,298 deaths, but with only 11 testing sites that number is suspected to be significantly underreported with the real numbers being significantly higher.[1] There are many factors which are exacerbating the effects of COVID-19 such as food insecurity, violent conflict, homelessness and poverty, population growth, lack of healthcare, reduced access to reliable news and gender inequality. This page is dedicated to contextualising the unique challenges that Afghanistan faces as the pandemic threatens to unravel the already fragile economic, political, and social systems. A variety of different anthropological forms of analysis are used to situate these vulnerabilities and examine the ways COVID-19 will impact people across the country.

Each section focuses on the effects of the pandemic through an intersectional lens to evaluate the impact on Afghanistan citizens. The page will explore the intersections between poverty and food insecurity as well as look more broadly at how homelessness and overpopulation are affecting the spread of the virus as Afghanistan's struggles to manage this public health crisis. The problems citizens are facing are further put into context by a long history of violence and civil unrest that impedes the country's ability to coordinate appropriate aid and implement effective health care policies. It is evident that this pandemic is also affecting the social structures and systems of violence that disproportionately affect Afghan women. While the pandemic has created a dire situation for many Afghan women, the resilience of citizens and a commitment to the fight for equality provides hope for the future. It is however, important to consider all of the compounding factors that impact the spread of the virus in Afghanistan and this page attempts to situate local contexts and issues to fully examine what COVID-19 means in lived localised contexts.

How has COVID-19 affected individuals' access to food in Afghanistan? by Vrinda Aggarwal

An Afghan male prepares food for sale in a pre-COVID-19 era.

Food insecurity is one of the most harrowing issues that has plagued Afghanistan for decades, not just in the wake of COVID-19. In 2001, for instance, a press brief circulated by the World Food Programme (WFP) claimed that Afghanistan was on the edge of being struck by famine.[2] In 2018, the country was assaulted with a drought that affected 22 out of 34 provinces and left so many of its inhabitants food insecure.[3] These are but a few examples from a stockpile of incidents surrounding this issue.

This chronic situation seems to be aggravated afresh with the emergence of COVID-19, creating a social climate of poverty and resource inaccessibility for millions of Afghans. Mahfooza, an Afghan residing in the Takhar Province in northeastern Afghanistan, was overcome with worry when the news of lockdown made its way to her through the radio.[4] Her concerns were centered around obtaining access to food for the seven members of her large family, as she relied on daily wages to meet the family’s basic needs, living at subsistence level.[4]

One of the primary means of combatting the spread of COVID-19 is to ‘flatten the curve’, which involves minimizing social contact and instructing individuals to stay within their homes as much as possible. This, however, is less than ideal for individuals who lack the funds to glean off of for a significant time period, and rely on their day-to-day earnings from various labor-based and other jobs, as well as seasonal migrations, in order to scrape by. Afghanistan is a country with more than half the population living in poverty,[5] making the ramifications of COVID-19 all the more deplorable for its citizens. Market price analysis conducted by WFP demonstrated that post-lockdown, wheat flour prices had shot up by 19% within a two-week period.[4] Additionally, food prices in Kabul went up by up to 30% overnight in March.[4]

In her podcast for Four Thought, Alpa Shah argued for a better developmental model for the Adivasi population of India.[6] In the wake of exploitation at the behest of multinational corporations for resources buried under the Adivasis’ land, Shah suggested that they should not just be left alone by these corporations, but should also be provided equal opportunities and access to resources.[6] This line of reasoning has interesting analogues to the narrative of Mahfooza, and the food insecure overall. According to scholar C. Peter Timmer, food insecurity is an issue of access rather than an issue of production.[7] An increase in the amount of food, therefore, may not necessarily be the appropriate response; what may be required is a revolution of the sociopolitical structures that characterize the Afghan landscape. Shah’s argument highlights the need during COVID-19 in Afghanistan to not simply provide those afflicted with poverty with monthly rations, as is currently being done.[4] Instead, there is a need to advocate for greater, more meaningful developmental programs that treat the issue of food insecurity at its root, i.e. the issue of poverty, lack of equal opportunities and access to basic resources such as healthcare and education. Only then can a just, sustainable outcome be seen in the nation, as although the issue of food insecurity has been exacerbated because of the income loss during lockdown, it is not merely an issue specific to COVID-19, and has characterized the country’s history for decades.

Dr. Shneiderman’s talk on post-disaster reconstruction in Nepal following the 2015 earthquake detailed the various challenges being faced by the affected Nepalis, including their sources of income and resources.[8] There was a range of different combinations of these sources for different households, such as remittances, government subsidies, and NGOs.[8] This consideration is important to bring into the discussion of food access in Afghanistan during COVID-19, as it can help illuminate the ways in which people’s struggles are the same as in the past, and the ways in which they vary.

Although in the past remittances were heavily relied upon by the low-income families, there has been a serious complication due to COVID-19, as lockdown policies have forced many Afghans earning internationally to migrate back home,[9] making remittances to their families in need impossible. In addition, the returnees themselves are also in need, and have only added to the poverty rate in the country. This has considerably increased the pressure and responsibility on the shoulders of the Afghan government as well as the NGOs, who now need to provide subsistence for a larger group. This realization only underscores the need for social reform in the nation, as a band-aid approach such as this will only hold for so long. As Dr. Shneiderman brings up in her talk, this disaster can and should be viewed as an opportunity to rebuild a better society, with more equitable allocation of resources and opportunities.[8]

Jock Stirrat proposed that philanthropic agencies such as NGOs lack coordination and cooperation due to the inescapable realities of a market society, where the organization’s and the individual’s interests are promoted above those they are meant to be helping.[10] Such an argument can guide one to question if the current levels of food insecurity could be persisting not simply due to loss of job opportunities as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns, but due to the organizations and bodies themselves that the impoverished provinces are relying upon.

Shaharzad Akbar, the chairperson for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), reported the public’s concern of unjust food distribution during COVID-19, stating that those with connections to the authorities were given more rations than those in actual need of it.[11] This links to Timmer’s idea of issue of access over production;[7] it is a possibility that the government’s personal pecuniary interests were being prioritized over the millions of Afghans in need. Those with greater sway could have struck up certain deals with the Afghan government to get greater access to resources at the expense of those without the same level of power and voice. In a market-centric society with social inequality, fair division of responsibility and fundamental resources such as food remains a fantasy rather than a lived reality. These issues can only be meaningfully challenged through the restructuring of society, to avoid life-threatening situations when times are arduous, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic.

War in the time of the Coronavirus by Alison Wright

A wall painted of Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy for peace in Afghanistan, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, in Kabul, April 13, 2020.

A history of war has continued to create cycles of violence and destruction that have transformed the country’s social, political, and economic structures. This has made Afghanistan extremely vulnerable as the global pandemic presents an overwhelming set of challenges to a country already facing the innumerable consequences of war. The UN Security council among other international organizations believe a ceasefire is the only effective means to address the humanitarian crisis that the war and pandemic poses to the civilian population.

Civil War in Afghanistan

The history of war and civil unrest in Afghanistan can be traced to the ongoing influence of the Taliban. The Taliban, also referred to as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, are a Islamic fundamentalist movement and military organization that formed in the early 1990s.[12] In its beginnings, the Taliban movement fought to elevate the suffering of civilians and form political stability by implementing their interpretation of the moral code of Islam.[12]

From 1996-2001 the Taliban regime controlled over 90% of Afghanistan and were generally welcomed by a population weary after the 1979 invasion and subsequent war against the Soviet Union.[12] This regime applied their interpretation of Islamic law which ultimately drew international criticism for committing human rights and cultural abuses. This included discouraging women from receiving education, holding public executions, banning any foreign media, and discriminating against ethnic minorities.[13] As Alpa Shah shows in the ethnography Nightmarch, a book about Naxalite guerrillas in India, even revolutionary groups who fight for equality can reproduce systems of violence when they hold power in systems of governance.[14] While the Taliban initially fought to alleviate suffering and provide stability, their history of violence against people in Afghanistan allows us to question in Alpa Shah’s words, “is it not often the case that the power following from the barrel of your gun will reproduce the very systems that you are trying to extinguish?"[14]. The Taliban movement was motivated by the desire to eradicate foreign influence and corruption but their rule only brought new forms of violence and challenges to the people of Afghanistan.

The Taliban and COVID-19

The Taliban remained in power until being overthrown by the American invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001. Despite their fall from power, the Taliban remain an influential political body that has contributed to years of political uncertainty and violence in the country.[15] The United Nations, the EU, and other major organizations have called for an immediate ceasefire and believe a coordinated effort between the international community, the Afghan government, and the Taliban, is needed to meet the current immense public health challenge.[16] The Taliban has coordinated with international aid agencies and agreed to allow foreign aid and health workers go unharmed within Taliban controlled regions.[16] However, despite negotiations the pandemic has reignited tensions between the government and Taliban groups. In the months of March and April, the UN estimated that the Taliban carried out more than 500 attacks which killed dozens of civilians in provinces already struggling with the impact of COVID-19.[17] By targeting checkpoints on the roads, travel into northern Afghanistan has been severely hampered along with the ability to transfer medical equipment.[16] This has prevented healthcare workers from reaching millions of Afghans living under Taliban rule.

The ability to provide relief and healthcare services has been demonstrated and publicized by both the Taliban and current government. For example, recent videos have been made public that depict carefully choreographed soldiers wearing surgical masks and carrying public medical equipment rather than weapons.[18] In contrast with the usual Taliban propaganda of fighters performing synchronized battlefield drills in balaclavas and fatigues, pristine white figures appear to screen local villagers and disinfect buildings.[19] The Taliban's response to the pandemic is reminiscent of the highly publicized humanitarian effort observed by scholar Jock Stirrat in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. [20] The competition between NGOs to demonstrate their contributions to relief aid in Sri Lanka is a strategy the Taliban are using to present their work as the more effective and coordinated response to the pandemic.

Despite publicized videos and public tensions the extent to which the Afghanistan people are able to access services is unknown. Between conflicting public media reports and government updates, it is unknown whether the Taliban are able to secure and provide appropriate healthcare in response to the pandemic.[18] In the Khawajah Bahawodin district of the Taliban controlled northern Takhar province, 43 year old Nabi Khan said the Taliban visited, but provided little support, "the Taliban came to the village mosque and announced about the virus and that was all".[19] While the Taliban's media campaign advertises their healthcare efforts, it remains unclear how much action the militants are willing or able to take against the virus and how much of their campaign is purely propaganda.[19] To asses the effectiveness of aid provided, Seira Tamang shows in "Situating the Earthquake in the Politics of Feudal Bureaucracy", that it is important to situate the pandemic response in localized experiences of history and politics, as local forms of governance vary depending on the location in Afghanistan.[21]

Afghan Peace-talks Under Threat

The current public health crisis that threatens Afghanistan civilians is unfolding against the backdrop of an unravelling peace process that has taken years to foster. Peace talks between the Taliban, the Afghanistan government, and the US are now at risk with the emergence of the global pandemic. In February, the Taliban and US signed a deal that agreed on the withdrawal of US led foreign forces in exchange for Taliban security guarantees. [22]The commitment made by the negotiating parties was to work towards ending the 18 year war that has ravaged the country. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 and ensuing fight for resources saw the reignition of violence. Formal peace talks are now at risk as the Taliban has resumed attacks on government forces despite warnings from the US and international community to ceasefire. [17] Debroah Lyons, the UN secretary representative urged that, “to safeguard the lives of countless civilians in Afghanistan and to give the nation hope of a better future, it is imperative that violence is stopped with the establishment of a ceasefire and for peace negotiations to commence”.[22]


Decades of conflict has rendered Afghanistan politically and socially fractured, its population profoundly and violently affected, and its future precarious.[13] The violence that the people of Afghanistan are still experiencing is putting an already vulnerable population at more risk to the detrimental effects of the virus. In order to support the country and its citizens during this difficult time, negotiators are calling on the international community and Afghanistan to not forget the advances they have made toward peace. The Afghan people are facing a war on two fronts, as said by a civilian, “we are fighting two viruses, the coronavirus has not infected us yet, but fighting with the other virus, the Taliban, continues.”[23]

How does COVID-19 magnify the issues of extreme poverty and homelessness in Afghanistan? by Narissa Brennan

Hundreds of families forced to live under the open sky due to civil war and famine in Afghanistan

In the global pandemic the safest place to be is at home. Due to widespread poverty and high levels of homelessness, staying at home in Afghanistan is a luxury that most of the population cannot afford. With more than 42 percent of the population living below the poverty line, and having the second highest rates of internally displaced people in the world, the population in Afghanistan remain extremely vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. [24] The displacement of people in Afghanistan is a result of the war that began back in the 1970s when the Soviet Union first invaded Afghanistan. The displacement of people continued and by the 1980s one in two refugees in the world were Afghan. [25] The normalisation of homelessness and death for the Afghan people may account for the people's distrust of the government that they should stay at home and adhere to lockdown guidelines. This is a part of the reason that the coronavirus has spread so quickly with almost half of all tests coming back positive. [26]

The diminished healthcare, governmental neglect, and the effects of war, have left a severely poor infrastructure in place for the people in Afghanistan. Side effects from nationwide disasters are amplified for the population living under the poverty line. This is similar to the social aftershocks felt after the 2015 Earthquakes in Nepal. In the series 'Aftershocked: Reflections on the 2015 Earthquakes in Nepal', Andrew Nelson reported on the "Disproportionate suffering" that the population living under the poverty line endures after a natural disaster, in comparison to people of a higher economic status. In addition to being most negatively impacted by the disaster, it was evident in Nepal that people who were poorer would also be the last to receive new infrastructure, if at all.[27] In Afghanistan the refugees who are made homeless by the dangerous nature of the country are also suffering disproportionately as they have two choices; stay in a crowded refugee camp with poor sanitation or head back to Afghanistan where they can't access treatment or healthcare and may fall victim to violent conflict. [28] It is also important to understand Afghanistans reliance on it's neighbouring countries and how refugees who were seeking safety in places such as Iran and Pakistan are now deciding whether it makes more sense to go back to Afghanistan or to stay in a crowded camp.

As published by Aryana Aid, poverty in Afghanistan is a result of two factors; "Food insecurity and a lack of a social security net" [29] The food insecurity that exists in Afghanistan intersects with the geographical structure of the country and it's reliance on food imports from places such as Kazakstan. In the podcast War & Peace, Andrew Watkins discusses the landlocked structure of Afghanistan and how it is dependent on wheat imports from Kazakstan as a major food source for Afghan people. As most Afghans have a diet of merely 5 things, one of them being wheat, the countries reliance on bordering nations food imports is significant.[30] Watkins explains that this food insecurity was worsened by COVID-19 when countries surrounding Afghanistan started shutting their borders for exports and going into lockdown.[30] This increase in food insecurity raises the levels of poverty and increases the risks of homelessness as people have to choose whether they can afford to eat or have shelter. COVID-19 created many problems for Afghanistan unrelated to the virus itself purely because they were so reliant on the movement that exists between its borders and neighbourougin countries. In 'Geographies of Knowing' Schendel discusses state borders and borderlands, observing borders as "conceptual maps we use to order social life". He then goes on to explain how the theme of flowing objects, people, and ideas is significant when understanding borderlands.[31] Schendel's understanding of borders helps to explain the significance of the closing of borders to Afghanistan and how this particular effect of COVID-19 was not so much viral but sociopolitical. The effects of the closing borders meant that food insecurity only increased as resources dwindled and at the same time migrant workers were then unable to leave Afghanistan to get work in other countries.

As COVID-19 continues to affects the poverty stricken the most, it is important to look at why poverty is so prevalent in Afghanistan and how the perpetual cycle of 'the poor become poorer' has no end in sight for the foreseeable future. As more poor families are affected by COVID-19 and unable to work they will lose more income and become even more food insecure. The vicious cycle of those who are food insecure, living as a refugee or subject to violence are all at risk at becoming more vulnerable because of the physical, social, and economic effects of COVID-19. The cycle which does a disservice to the vulnerable Afghans, represents a similar situation to Afghanistan's neighbouring country Pakistan. In the journal 'From Colonialism to Postcolonial Colonialism' Martin Sökefeld explains how a postcolonial state is not a rigid concept and while a country can be freed from colonial rule, the effects of colonialism are long lasting. In Pakistan the political discourse remains largely influenced by the colonisation of the British even as the country is legally "freed". [32] This is similar in Afghanistan where the invasion of a foreign country has created years of violent war and has left the majority of the population with a severe lack of healthcare, a diminished economy and an extreme displacement of people within the country. COVID-19 will only continue to deepen these issues within the country.

The issues of poverty in Afghanistan intersect with other social issues such as gender inequalities and the issues of governmental support. With schools closing around the country, young girls are at risk of abuse since teachers cannot keep a watchful eye on them. Another issue is that a major driving force of parents pushing their young daughters into marriage is poverty. As the economy declines young girls may be subjected to forced marriages as their parents try to provide some economic relief for the rest of the family. [33] As poverty surges across the nation, less and less resources are able to keep the Afghan people afloat. While NGOs such as Unicef are attempting to provide food and cash support for Afghan refugees, many are undocumented and therefore are unable to recivece this financial support. [34] As Afghanistan aims to deal with COVID-19 it is important to observe not just the ways that the people will be affected short term but also the long term effects on the already impoverished nation.

Overpopulation and Geography of Afghanistan towards the COVID-19 Pandemic by Rap Escalona

The population and geography in Afghanistan have played a vital role in its society with regards to its policies, economy, and culture for the past centuries. Many devastating and disruptive events have greatly affected the country’s population to become more volatile in its numbers. From constant civil wars to the rising Coronavirus cases, Afghanistan has been facing various challenges due to its geography and large population respectively. With regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus has not only caused the country’s economy to face a deeper state of poverty, it has also erased a constantly growing percentage of their people [35]. Moreover, the area by which this country resides has placed many citizens in dense populations that make it more liable to infect or contaminate each other. They consistently fight the need for a better healthcare system that would cater to the fast-spreading virus throughout their large population.

The population of Afghanistan has set a foundation of hardship and adversity for its citizens long before the COVID-19 pandemic even hit the country. The Daily Outlook of Afghanistan released an article that talks about the "urgent need for population control" [36] in 2019. According to their study, population growth has been one of the main causes of poverty in their country despite the violence and wars they have fought over the years. The country's population is estimated to be about 37.17 million as of 2018 and has been in a growth rate of about 2.4 percent per year based on the Central Statistics Organization (CSO) [36]. "If the same rate retains, the population in the country will be doubled within three decades" [36]; thus creating an array of additional challenges towards governing the already war-torn country. Because of this, scarce supply and allocation of resources are two of the main issues that Afghanistan must withstand in order to fight the sphere of poverty amongst its citizens.


There are various reasons as to why Afghanistan faces overpopulation; however, the Afghan society's biggest trouble is its domination of "strict tribal norms and values and fundamentalist interpretation of religion" [36]. In the traditional Shia and Sunni marital ruling, Muslim men are allowed to have four wives at any given time. They have the freedom to have as many children as they please even with different spouses all under the same roof. Hence, as of 2017, the birth rate has expanded at approximately 4.63 births per woman and is still constantly increasing everyday [37]. Furthermore, Afghanistan's uneducated population has also created a norm of unawareness towards its population amongst its people [36]. Due to the long and on-going bloodshed, Afghan schools and communities have been destroyed and forced migration to other regions of the country have been more apparent. Hence, increasing the number of uneducated citizens and limiting the opportunity for students to learn more about their country's current state towards the effects of overpopulation [36]. Citizens who live in these areas that were ravaged by war have undoubtedly shifted their focus to a mode of survival. This mindset deprives these people from thinking fundamentally and intelligently with respect to the country's future in the political and economical aspect. Although Afghanistan is still facing the effects of population growth, the government has taken it step towards the approval of birth control in order to regulate the rapid birth rate [38]. This is due to the statement released by the United Nations that "Afghan women manage to still have an average increase in birthing children over their lifetime" [38] and will endanger the "economic growth in the one of the world's poorest countries" [38].

In connection to the Coronavirus pandemic, the population of Afghanistan is forecasted to have likely faced approximately 10 million cases and recoveries (a third of the country's total population) over the past 6 months [35]. "The Afghan health ministry released the estimates Wednesday, saying they are based on antibody tests on around 9,500 people across the war-shattered country" [35]. An official tally of the total number of tested cases and deaths are as follows: ~ 37,000 COVID-19 cases and ~ 1,300 deaths. However, acting Health Minister Ahmad Jawad Asmani, states that they are lacking the financial resources in order to provide testing and data-gathering for approximately 30 million citizens in the country [35]. Due to the large population and current war-torn state of Afghanistan, it has been extremely problematic for the government to be able to provide mass testing covering the entire population. This has resulted to discrepancies and incompetence in forecasting and data-sharing in media outlets. It has placed the country in survival mode and putting a premium on educating the citizens about sanitizing and social distancing solely. Furthermore, the pandemic will also put a certain demographic of the population at a higher risk. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), "5.26 million children in Afghanistan would need help to survive in 2020. Since the global pandemic has wreaked havoc on Afghan public services, access to healthcare, and the economy, all of which are heavily reliant on foreign aid, the number of children needing life-saving support is spiking" [39]. The economic depression has made families extremely poor and has shaped children's futures unlike to become better.

Map of Afghanistan

The geography of Afghanistan has also posed a risk with respect to the high density of populations that is rapidly spreading the virus. Rural areas have been the hotspot of COVID-19 cases because of the community of houses that are stuck together [40]. In a broader aspect, Afghanistan's geographical location poses more risk to spreading and/or obtaining the virus from neighbouring countries. Since it is in between Iran and Pakistan, they are more susceptible to a spike of the number of cases in their country. As mentioned by Bernard Cohn, the power of geography pertains to the location by which a particular area is surrounded and placed [41]. This means that the geography and placement of Afghanistan naturally positions itself in a more dangerous and state. In connection to a video clip produced by VOX about how borders have transformed India and Pakistan's subcontinents, it focuses on the effects of geographical locations of both countries. respectively [42]. They mention that the placement of both countries has made an avenue for efficient forced migrations by the British during the time of colonialism. In an anthropological

perspective and in connection to today's pandemic, the virus could be seen as the 'colonizers' because of how fast and effective it could spread along the borders Afghanistan. It's easy for the virus to travel from one country to another. Moreover, the 'I am Gurgaon' documentary produced by VPRO shows how the geography of a certain location may change social and economical aspects of a country [43]. They talk about the social dynamic that separates rich from poor urbanized cities like Gurgaon. With regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many citizens of Afghanistan who have lost jobs and are now living in poverty. Their lifestyle has posed them to a higher risk of getting the virus because they have less access to nutritious food and clean water [35].

Inaccessibility and limitations of Afghanistan’s Healthcare by Kendra Hallding

WHO delivers essential medical supplies and equipment to Afghanistan

The people of Afghanistan have long been suffering from poor healthcare conditions due to many years of war, caste discrimination, and political uncertainty. The struggling healthcare system has compromised the lives of many Afghan people for decades and left a greater part of the population living in impoverished conditions [44]. Although healthcare in Afghanistan is still a prominent issue and cause for concern, there have been movements towards better health coverage and accessibility for the country as a whole. The impact of COVID-19 is having a tremendous impact on government revenues and therefore inhibiting the financial support for protecting lives, supporting the vulnerable population and restarting the economy[45]. Through it all, the Government of Afghanistan is working in partnership with The World Bank to support the country under the current conditions with long-term plans in mind[45].The World Health Organization and other specialized agencies have been of assistance to the Afghan government in implementing new approaches and policies in recent years [46].

A historical, and in some regions of the country, an ongoing factor that influences the struggles of Afghanistan’s healthcare system is the dominance and political governing by the Taliban [44]. The Taliban is an Islamic fundamentalist political movement and military group that ruled the political authority from 1996 until 2001 [47]. Although the Taliban ruling came to an end in 2001, there are still strong traces of its influence and some areas in the country where fundamentals of its control remain [47]. The Taliban has been known for their attacks on healthcare facilities and health practitioners [48]. The Taliban is well known for enforcing strict rules surrounding healthcare which contribute to gender discrimination and in turn affect the healthcare of the overall population [47].

The Taliban barred women from achieving any formal education which limited their ability for social mobility or achieving professional education and employment [47]. With women unable to attain formal education and professional work, such as positions within healthcare, this has limited the medical resources available to them over the decades and is still very prevalent today. Under Taliban governing, women were not permitted to receive any form of medical treatment from hospitals or any other form of legal healthcare [47]. It is also considered off-limits or taboo for male doctors to be medical practitioners for women. With men dominating the healthcare system, this leaves women without anywhere to go with medical concerns or illness. It is predominantly men that rule the medical professions throughout Afghanistan, and it remains one of the most problematic countries for women’s health [44].

After the Taliban’s governing came to an end in 2001, the Afghan health care system seemed to rise in accessibility with a number of NGOs facilitating services more broadly [44]. With these improvements and national assistance, the overall health and life expectancy of the Afghanistan population has seen an increase, with accessibility to approximately 77% of the population, and a decrease in deaths from diseases [44].

Although the country has seemingly made progress, the global upsurge in COVID-19 cases has left a great proportion of the Afghan female population left without any opportunity or access to medical aid and testing. Rahila, a young female Afghan resident of the province of Takhar, an area in which the Taliban still holds control, expresses her concerns about the Coronavirus and the women of her community stating, “Who will test the women?” and “What if a woman has a coronavirus...everyone in our village will be affected.” [49]. Females of Afghanistan are very much aware of their inequality due to the poverty and discrimination they face, which in turn has an impact on their safety and well-being [50]. This is of great concern for the spreading of the virus, as just under half the population is female and living without medical assistance [44].

The rates of Coronavirus in Afghanistan do not seem as accurate as in other regions of the world, not solely due to lack of female testing. Afghanistan’s COVID-19 cases are overall not being detected and tested as frequently, as the country does not have enough resources available for their testing necessities [51]. The economic stress Afghanistan had long faced before the pandemic is troublesome for the country's current state. The medical and healthcare field continue to face ongoing attacks, often led by Taliban leaders, leaving typical healthcare lacking or non-existent in many regions of the country [47]. As discussed in Ayodhya: The Modernity of Hinduism, the populations that live in slums or poverty-stricken regions are suffering from the decline in public health facilities [52]. It is for this reason, that communicable diseases, like Coronavirus, are ongoing and affecting the impoverished. This has long-term effects on the population as a whole, but particularly children, leaving them malnourished and more susceptible to contracting diseases.  As Dr. Shneiderman discusses in Expertise, Labour and Mobility in Nepal's Post-Disaster Reconstruction, “the challenges of governance and inequitable resource distribution make disaster recovery difficult” [8]. Much like other natural disasters that South Asian countries have faced in the past, the current pandemic and availability of resources is causing and will continue to cause economic stress for years to come.

Although Afghanistan is facing tremendous struggles throughout the pandemic, the country has received additional aid during these trying times. Give2Asia is an NGO based in San Francisco that focuses on working with 23 countries throughout Asia. This group supports individuals, families and corporations [53]. The funding provided by this group is primarily to assist those who are suffering immediate impact due to vulnerability, low-wages, loss of employment and overall inequality [53].The World Health Organization has also been of assistance with medical supplies and equipment for Afghanistan [46]. Shipments of personal protective equipment along with other medical equipment and machines were distributed to the Central Medical Store of the Ministry of Public Health of Afghanistan by the World Health Organization [46]. This equipment received is worth 4.2 million in US dollars to date, but there will be more assistance distributed as needs are further determined [46]. The World Health Organization continues to try and support Afghanistan medical services and intensify the services available. Many of the front-line workers in Afghanistan did not have the resources available to protect themselves when seeing patients. This is ultimately what led to many of them contracting and spreading the virus themselves.

Coronavirus as a Threat to Free Press in Afghanistan by Carly Madeley

Arriving passengers to Afghanistan are checked for fever

In Afghanistan from the years 1996 to 2001 under the Taliban government, television was illegal. While this would be a significant blow to freedom of information in any country, Afghanistan both then and now has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world,[54] with a survey taken in 2015 reporting that 77% of Afghan citizens depended on radio and television as their primary source of information regarding current events.[54] In this way, Afghanistan has been the location of an “unevenly experienced”[55] modernity, with the country making huge strides forward since 2001, but large sections of the population still unable to read. Since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, the state of the media in Afghanistan has been considered by many to be a success story.[56] However, during these two decades Afghanistan has remained a dangerous place to be to be a journalist, with many retaliatory attacks coming from what remains of the Taliban. Even though these difficulties and dangers however, journalists in Afghanistan “play an increasingly important role in holding power to account.”[56] The COVID-19 epidemic however has put the fate of Afghanistan’s media industry in jeopardy. Additionally complicating things, in August of 2020 the Afghani government has begun peace talks with the Taliban, of which a major issue being the release of political prisoners which the media has been controversially barred from, with media representatives from Afghanistan claiming that not allowing the press to record what is happening during these talks is “against democracy, Afghan constitution and all human rights principles.”[57]The relatively brief period in which the Taliban ruled Afghanistan can be thought of, in a way like a natural disaster. Although Taliban rule was not a disaster in the most traditional of senses, the process the country COVID-19 is a critical interruption to that “post bad things reconstruction”[58] process that is described as occurring in the aftermath of natural disasters,  and it jeopardizes the strides that the Afghan people have made towards a more free society.

Since 2001 Afghani media has existed on a knifes edge. In 2018 Afghanistan was voted the “deadliest place to be a journalist”[59] by the Committee to Protect Journalists as well as the International Federation of Journalists. Similar to the revolutionaries in Alpa Shah's Nightmarch, journalists in Afghanistan sacrifice an enormous amount of personal safety to ensure that free press remains so in Afghanistan.[60] Taliban bombings have killed 15 media workers since 2015. In 2018 Time magazine published an article in which they claimed that “there is no question that militant groups like the Taliban and ISIS are the deadliest threats to journalists.”[56] With the arrival of COVID, this is no longer the case. 70 journalists have fallen ill with COVID as of July 2nd of 2020. Additionally, this is a very critical time in history for Afghanistan for reason unrelated to the virus with controversial and long-awaited peace talks beginning with the Taliban. Since the fall of its government in 2001, the Taliban has consistently tried to suppress the freedom of the press in Afghanistan levying many attacks against journalists. Just before the peace talks began the government of Afghanistan proposed a new law that would require Journalists to reveal their sources, a requirement that would muzzle the free press and put Afghani journalists in even more danger than they are in now. The government did not end up going through with this plan due to it to it being “vigorously opposed by journalists.”[61] This was a huge victory for the free press in Afghanistan, but due to COVID the media industry still remains in grave danger even in such a time where it is critical that they are able to continue speaking truth to power.

COVID-19 has hit Afghanistan hard and revealed profound weaknesses in its infrastructure. As of August 6th Afghanistan, has 36.937 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1.298 deaths.[62] But Afghanistan has a relatively low testing capacity so the actual infection rate is suspected to be much higher, with some estimates claiming that up to 10 million citizens have been infected over the course of the pandemic.[63] Additionally, Afghanistan has long been a country marked by armed conflicts, significantly reducing citizens access to healthcare, with a rate of only 1.9 healthcare professionals to 10,000 citizens.[64] The CDC has said that the risk in Afghanistan is “high” and recommends that travellers avoid the country in order to protect themselves.[65]

The Media has in no way escaped the effects of COVID-19. Although the virus has increased the number of people dependent on radio and television to learn the news, the industry has been the victim of widespread layoffs and work from home orders. Additionally, complicating matters, many journalists who have been instructed to work from home do not have reliable access to electricity and internet.[23] Frankly, Media in Afghanistan is important in a way that it simply is not in the rest of the world. News on social media is generally considered to be extremely unreliable and internet access is not a given for many citizens. In addition, because of extremely low literacy rates within the country, a traditional media is an essential service in a way that it may not be in countries with more readily accessible internet and higher literacy rates, and with COVID “all local media are on the edge of collapse.”[23]

With the peace talks currently happening with the Taliban, there is concern that freedoms afforded to the press will be walked back. As historically the Taliban has focused their attacks on Media workers and journalists there is concern that they will use the venue of the peace talks to leverage sanctions against the Afghani media that will prevent them from speaking critically about the Taliban. Essentially, this is a critical moment in the history of Afghanistan in which the media will be essential in retain the political freedoms that the country has won over the past two decades. COVID adds an additional complication that puts the whole industry in jeopardy during this time.

COVID-19 Highlights Inequality and Suffering of Afghan Females by Ashley Seatter

A woman in Kabul sits across from a health team during the COVID-19 pandemic[66]

Any discussions regarding gender should always look at both traditional genders, male and female, as well as non-traditional genders, such as gender fluid or non-binary, etc. Unfortunately, as regards Afghanistan, homosexuality remains taboo, is "widely condemned as immoral and un-Islamic [and] as a result, there are no statistics indicating the size of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, ad transgender (LGBT) community in the country." [67] As such, this group, and associated genders, are not represented in official data regarding COVID-19 numbers. And the numbers themselves are also problematic. "Officially, Kabul has so far reported around 37,000 COVID-19 cases nationwide and nearly 1,300 related deaths as of August 7. [This is vastly different from] a "World Health Organization-backed survey [which revealed that approximately] 31.5% of Afghanistan's population... around 10 million people... [have] been infected by the novel coronavirus since February. [The misleading numbers are due to] "administrative constraints and low testing."[68] Unable to rely on demographical statistics, and not wanting to discount the male experience, as COVID-19 effects all and there is not doubt that Afghan men are struggling, the situation for women and girls is extremely difficult and can be excessively cruel. Therefore, this section of the wiki page will focus on the indirect consequences of COVID-19 and why the impact is so intensely felt by Afghan females. Before the pandemic, gender based inequality was rampant, as "decades of conflict, food insecurity, and conservative patriarchal norms limit[ed] Afghan women and girl's freedom of movement, decision-making power, and access to health, education, and other basic services and resources."[69] As seen in Jock Stirrat's paper regarding the tsunami from December 26, 2004, women are frequently impacted to a greater degree in moments of disaster or pandemic. Stirrat noted that, at least as regards Sri Lanka, the tsunami "killed women rather than men... [for reasons including, the female preoccupation] trying to save children and infants... [while] men were more able to run away."[70] This analysis of gender roles and the repercussions of gender expectations during moments of crises, is of particular relevance in modern Afghanistan.

As the coronavirus became known globally and governments, businesses, and households responded, the situation for Afghan females worsened dramatically. In a general sense, this related to loss of income and food insecurity, but for the female gender, this meant more, as Swiss NGO CARE discovered through the collection of quantitative data and analysis via questionnaires.[69] The results included observations such as food shortages which means less food for the family, and thus can be extrapolated to mean less food for women, affecting their health and nutrition. They also noted the increase in domestic chores and "women's care burden" due to school closures and the coronavirus lockdown, with similar experiences found in urban and rural settings.[69] Similar practices regarding data were utilized by Michael Hutt in the article 'Ethnic Nationalism, Refugees and Bhutan.' Hutt interpreted and placed governmental quantitative data in and amongst his writing and used such numbers in this anthropological analysis.[71]

CARE also found that "the limited number of female health practitioners" prevents women and girls from accessing such services.[69] This, paired with historical taboos forbidding male doctors from treating female patients, means many females simply go without care.[47] One women from a Taliban-controlled village with a single, male doctor remarked, "Who will test the women [for COVID]?"[47] Even women who access medical care can run into trouble, in this example, which is unfortunately commonplace: a woman went to a doctor with pain and a severe fever, and the doctor diagnosed COVID-19, but when she returned home and gave the prescription to her husband, he beat her for revealing her name "to a strange man."[72] The specific reason for this assault is due to Afghan law and custom, which is that a women's name should be kept secret "from people outside the family, even doctors" and this includes, not only prescriptions, but wedding invitations, her children's birth certificates, her death certificate, and even, her tombstone.[72] And yet, outside of such 'reasons,' due to the pandemic, "gender-based violence is increasing due to existing gender norms and growing tension in the household."[69] That, coupled with the lockdown, means services that were once available have ceased, leaving women in very dangerous situations. Even those who go against kinship norms and chose divorce, do not always find safety: Zainab was able to secure a divorce last year but the lockdown has meant living with her parents who are also abusing and threatening her, as her divorce makes her an "immoral woman."[73]

And yet, despite all this hardship, felt across industry and experience, there are examples of women fighting against their cultural norms, with the goal of improving gender equality. Reminiscent of Alpa Shah, who had to navigate gender norms and expectations to do research and tell stories that were untold,[74] these women are finding their voice and doing their part to increase the narratives available. One example is Marzia Akbari of Herat, a psychologist who focuses on treating victims of domestic violence. Her city responded to COVID-19 with a lockdown, which meant that her covert counselling clinic, hidden away at a local hospital, had to move. Losing that cover, the women Akbari was working with have disappeared, almost over night: she has struggled to reach half of her clientele.[73] "Globally, cases of domestic abuse... surged [when] countries went into lockdown..." but for women in Afghanistan, supports found in other places simply do not exist: in the rare cases where such aid can be found, there is immense cultural and societal pressure to accept one's lot and carry on.[73] The sad reality is that "the UN estimates that over 50% of Afghan women... face domestic abuse from their partner in their lifetime..." but Akbari believes the numbers are likely higher.[73] Given the seemingly unsurmountable odds that are stacked against her, Akbari's work ethic, determination, and courage are truly inspirational.

For many women, their situation is similar to Chandni bibi. "From her life experiences and perhaps the general nature of a patriarchal society, Chandni bibi has internalized that she must always be taken care of."[75] The socio-economic reality is one without choice of education or employment, and yet, there are rare examples of those who choose differently. To return to the data collected by CARE, when detailing the demographics of those surveyed, they noted that of community leaders, 44% were women, and of governmental representatives, 50% were women.[69] These numbers show, that despite continuing inequality and attitudes towards the female gender, that progress has been made regarding female leadership within Afghanistan. Another example of female employment comes from Kabul, where dozens of women have found employment by selling food from mobile street carts. One businesswoman describes her experience: "when I first started... I was harassed constantly and made fun of by many people, but I and my colleagues... just kept going. And over time, we witnessed a change in people's attitude towards us."[13] The COVID-19 connection is that once the lockdown began, 40 women chose to carry on working, but in a non-for-profit way. With the help of the NGO that established their businesses, the carts were converted to mobile "disinfection units," offering free hand sanitizer, clean water, and soap. [13] The fact that these women would expose themselves to COVID-19, to help their fellow citizenry, some of whom don't support their choice to work at all, shows the resilience of the Afghan female. While this nation is still very far from gender equality, the sacrifice and determination of those few who continue to fight for protections and employment options means that perhaps, just maybe, one day, Afghanistan will get there.


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