The Pulse | Society | South Asia

Coronavirus in Afghanistan: A Need for Regional Health Cooperation

Afghanistan is in serious need of enhanced cooperation, especially in the healthcare sector.

By Abdullah Elham for
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Coronavirus in Afghanistan: A Need for Regional Health Cooperation

Afghan health workers wearing protective gear wait to check passengers who arrived from China as a preventive measure for Coronavirus, at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

As fears are growing about the deadly coronavirus outbreak, Afghanistan its first positive case of at a time of political disarray and amid the politics of war and peace. News of the virus, officially dubbed COVID-19, even overshadowed the developments surrounding the hoped beginning of the end of 40 years of brutal war in the country.

The virus, which emerged in China, has spread to more and more countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) said the world should do more to prepare for a possible coronavirus pandemic. Iran, an immediate neighbor of Afghanistan, has now the highest number of deaths outside China. The cases reported in Afghanistan have been linked to the outbreak in Iran. Different countries in the region have tightened measures for preventing the spread of the coronavirus to their societies. Considering its serious social, economic and political consequences, as well as the closure of crossing points on top of the vulnerability of some states in the region, especially Afghanistan, it seems imperative for the region’s countries to fully and effectively engage in serious cooperation. 

The reality on the ground in Afghanistan includes poor health services and shaky health infrastructure. The first positive case showed that the government was unable to examine samples in provinces and samples are being sent to the capital or abroad. The country faces a high rate of illiteracy and lack of public health and hygiene awareness, an economically weak and vulnerable society, fluid border, particularly with Pakistan, and overall a fragile state that is, more than any other time in its post-Taliban era, prone to the failures of the central government. Afghanistan imports almost all pharmaceuticals — allegedly of poor quality — from regional countries and thousands of Afghan patients travel for treatment to other countries. Moreover, Afghanistan is not only prone to the transition of viruses and other deadly diseases from its neighbors but also copes with other misfortunes like drug trafficking and drug addiction with symbiotic relationships. On top of all these, there are lots of opportunities for cooperation, addressing common issues and utilizing shared knowledge, practices and standard health trade of goods and services between the regional countries. 

As societies, we become more dependent on states when we face crises and disasters like epidemics. States also become more dependent on regional and international cooperation and assistance in such circumstances. Reducing the tension between the needs and imperatives of states and the needs and imperatives of humankind are a long-time debate in international relations, especially in the English school theory. As McGlinchey, Walters and Scheinpflug  argue, this subject is tried with how to reconcile the desires and needs of both people and states and find a “working balance between how power, interests, and standards of justice and responsibility operate in international society.”

The nature of the societies that live in this region, especially Afghanistan’s geographic location, carries advantages and disadvantages that have always needed solidarism and cooperation toward a regional society that can address issues fundamentally. For instance, not only China but South Asia in Afghanistan’s immediate neighborhood is a hotspot for emerging infectious diseases, including those with pandemic potential. These countries also have poor health infrastructure. The quick spread of the coronavirus from China to the region, especially to Iran and then to Afghanistan proved this. 

Afghanistan is now in serious need. The ongoing political standoffs and disarray, poor economy and incompetent governance, on one hand, and on the other hand, a lack of cooperation from outside, especially from the region, increase the level of vulnerability of the society. There has been no direct assistance from China, for instance, in controlling the outbreak of COVID-19 in Afghanistan. Beijing, arguably, now has considerable experience in controlling the outbreak and has the capability of supporting Afghanistan.

Iran, meanwhile, put the greater regional society in danger by irresponsible treatment of its outbreak. The Iranian government not only didn’t help Afghanistan to control the outbreak, but spread fake news on public channels in Iran claiming that the virus entered Iran from Afghanistan thorough illegal crossings. Nevertheless, the illegal flow of people in the region, especially from and to Afghanistan, created problems for not only Iran but Pakistan and the entire region. It needs to be addressed through a more responsible and formal framework.

As different cases are being registered in different provinces of Afghanistan, health professionals in the war-torn country said they are afraid of a complete failure in managing a possible outbreak. Almost all of the suspected cases are reported among people who returned from Iran where about 2.5 million Afghan refugees and thousands of Afghan students live. In addition, the government of Iran still pushes the forceful repatriation of illegal immigrants back to Afghanistan. The ministry of Public Health in Afghanistan has called upon the government of Iran to postpone its deportations. However, practical steps toward such understandings need more formal and cooperative regional followup. 

The countries in the region also need competent policies for regulating the public and private sectors in the vital health services and trade. This priority needs to enter into foreign policy discussions and agendas among regional countries. In particular, Afghanistan needs to do more in this area. Afghanistan, more than any other state in the region, needs cooperation in the health sector and the regulation of the current flow of health trade, services and handling deadly outbreaks like coronavirus. Likewise, countries need to come together as a region to control the illegal flow of people, goods, and services. This will not only help the states to improve their socio-economic development, but also produce considerable results immediately in controlling the spread of coronavirus and benefit the regional society as a whole.

To conclude, it is imperative for Afghanistan to expand regional cooperation in the health sector in order to have effective support in the present outbreak and other emergency situations. The country also needs more effective and efficient cooperation and trade in this area. Even for research and sharing knowledge, further effective regional cooperation is a must. 

Countries in the region, especially, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, can initiate the vitally important cooperation by calling for a regional summit that could specifically discuss the possibility of collaboration in controlling COVID-19 and the possibilities of extending cooperation in the health sector. This framework can also address the aforementioned issues in the future, thereby ensuring that the engagement conducted by world organizations and the international community would also become more effective eventually. 

Abdullah Elham works with the BBC as a producer. He writes on the governance, peace, and politics of Afghanistan and the region.