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Friday June 14, 2024

Pakistan’s support to Afghanistan during pandemic

By Owais Ahmed
May 12, 2020

The massive outbreak of Covid-19 in Iran during late February resulted in a large scale return of Afghan migrants from Iran. As per The International Organization of Migration (IOM), more than 145,000 Afghans fled Iran in March 2020. This enormous influx of returnees, unmonitored and untested, from a country that is one of the world’s biggest epicenters of the pandemic to an impoverished homeland that is woefully unprepared to deal with it, threatened to create a greater outbreak in Afghanistan that could overwhelm its health infrastructure. As of 5 May 2020, there have been 3,224 positive cases, with 421 recoveries and 95 deaths across 33 provinces in the country. These figures, however, represent only a fraction of the actual number of infections, due to the very limited testing capability of Afghan health infrastructure.

Afghanistan’s porous borders make detecting and preventing the virus’s spread from bordering countries practically impossible. Fear and misinformation discourage those with symptoms from seeking medical treatment. Furthermore, prevailing joint family system is making calls for social distancing unrealistic. At even greater risk are Afghanistan’s 4 million internally-displaced people who are more busy trying to survive poverty and upheaval than to worry about a new virus.

The Afghan Ministry of Public Health forecasted that “16 million out of a population of more than 30 million could get the coronavirus. In the worst case scenario, 700,000 people will require hospitalization, 220,000 of them may require ICU treatment. From that number, 110,000 people may die due to Covid-19. Considering the capacity of health infrastructure in Afghanistan, the majority of people can only rely on their own immune system, failing that the government cannot be expected to help much.

Impact of Covid-19 on Afghan peace process

Owing to financial crisis due to Covid-19, US and other coalition partners fighting massive epidemic back home can be expected to reconsider economic pledges to Afghanistan. The US may also use spread of Covid-19 in Afghanistan as justification to carry out a hasty withdrawal of troops. Recent reports published in the US media also suggest Donald Trump’s inclination towards early withdrawal. However, unless there is a massive surge in number of fatalities due to Covid-19, it is not likely to affect either Kabul administration or Taliban in their approach towards peace process as none of them is willing to compromise its political aims due to pandemic.

Pakistan’s response

Afghanistan shares a massive 2,430km border with Pakistan. Being landlocked, it is largely dependent on Pakistan for transit trade. Pakistan land routes leading towards ports of Gwadar and Karachi via Chaman and Torkham border crossings provide Afghanistan with a relatively fast and economical way of transport. At this time of global pandemic, Pakistan was left with stark policy options regarding Afghan Transit Trade. While continuation of trade posed serious threats for Pakistan, on the other hand complete sealing of borders with Afghanistan would have caused dearth of essential items in Afghanistan. However as a neighbour and in view of fraternal bilateral relations, Pakistan remained in abiding solidarity with the people of Afghanistan. When the world was inclined towards a complete lockdown, Pakistan reopened its border with Afghanistan at Chaman on 21 March to permit the entry of trucks carrying food and essential goods under the Afghan Transit Trade. Pakistan also opened the borders at Chaman and Torkham between 6 and 9 April for stranded Afghans to return to their country at the special request of the Afghan government and on humanitarian considerations. From 10th April, Pakistan permitted the movement of cargo trucks and containers to cross over into Afghanistan through Torkham and Chaman border crossing points thrice a week and extended it to five days a week on 1st May. While people of Pakistan largely appreciated these initiatives from the government, it is hoped that Pakistan will continue supplies of essential goods to Afghanistan, following appropriate safety measures as a hunger crisis is already beckoning for Afghanistan.