The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a health emergency but a multi-dimensional crisis for Afghanistan, casting “a huge shadow” over daily lives, Deborah Lyons, newly appointed head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan told the Security Council on Thursday, June 25. From a broader point of view, it shows the vulnerability of the entire socio-economic system built over the past decades, based on continuing dependence on foreign aid, unstable supply routes and precarious political accommodation within the regional landscape.
COVID-19 in Afghanistan
Since 24 February 2020, when the first COVID-19 infection was confirmed, the disease has been spreading through all the country’s 34 provinces. As of 8 July, 33,594 people have tested positive for COVID-19, 936 have died and 20,305 have recovered. The official figures vastly understate the scale of the problem: Afghanistan has one of the lowest testing rates for COVID-19 in the world, and “it is highly plausible that actual rates both for infections and deaths are far greater than what has been reported”, states a recent AAN report, while data compiled by the International Rescue Committee reveals significant shortfalls in COVID-19 testing in many conflict-affected countries, including Afghanistan.
The health emergency has created social and economic disruptions, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities, especially food insecurity, one of the country’s major challenges. For many Afghans the biggest impact of the pandemic “would not be the virus itself, but the hunger caused by lockdown measures and a breakdown in supply lines”, to the point that “the UN and humanitarian actors have begun to raise the alarm about the potentially massive scope of starvation” that could be coming.
Even before the pandemic, food insecurity was a major concern, and it reached alarmingly high levels due to its effects. In April and May, “some 13.4 million people were either in crisis or at emergency levels of food insecurity”, with the number of people at emergency levels increasing to 4.3 million. Over 3 million women and children are projected to be acutely malnourished in 2020, with an additional 160,000 people projected to be affected owing to COVID-19.
According to the latest IPC Acute Food Insecurity Analysis issued in May, “the overall number of people facing acute food insecurity is on the rise in urban settlements, and the upheaval set in motion by the COVID-19 pandemic will push even more families and communities into more vulnerable conditions”, particularly in urban areas. While rural areas should have better access to food after the harvest that began in June, cities such as Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Nangarhar and Kandahar are already severely hit by the impact of COVID-19 on the economic accessibility to food: “70% of urban households report decreased outcomes while basic staple food prices increase”.
No jobs, higher food prices, conflict
The lockdown measures decreased daily labour, causing daily wage opportunities and small-trader income to significantly decline, further limiting the most vulnerable households’ purchasing power vis-a-vis increased food prices. According to the World Food Programme’s market monitoring, the average wheat flour price “has increased by 17 per cent between 14 March and 24 June, while the cost of pulses, sugar, cooking oil and rice (low quality) increased by 32 per cent, 21 per cent, 40 per cent, and 20 per cent, respectively, over the same period”. With 55% of Afghans living under the poverty line, large parts of the population have little resilience and coping mechanisms to survive long term without paid labour, while food insecurity among returnees and internally displaced people was already rampant before the pandemic, creating an alarming cumulative effect.
The food distribution initiated by the Afghan government and by local and international NGO’s is not sufficient: access to humanitarian assistance and aid delivery has been limited due to the lockdowns and to the continued violence. “At a time when an urgent humanitarian response was required to protect every life in Afghanistan, both the Taliban and Afghan national security forces carried out deliberate acts of violence that undermined healthcare operations," said Deborah Lyons, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan.
Regional supply routes, donor pledges and domestic revenues
“Given the UN’s assessment that 14.3 million Afghans experienced some degree of food insecurity in March 2020, food imports are of particular concern”, warned in April the SIGAR Quarterly Report. Wheat is the dominant cereal crop in Afghanistan. However, local production does not meet internal demand and annually about 2 million tons of wheat are imported, mainly from neighboring and regional countries, making Afghanistan one of the leading importers of wheat in the world. This deficit is now exacerbated by the disruption of the supply chain due to measures put in place in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Partial border closures with Pakistan and Iran and bans or restrictions on routes from Central Asia have affected the main supply routes for food, and India cannot fully substitute for Kazakhstan and Central Asia countries as a provider of wheat, despite the route via the Chabahar port, in southern Iran. As Andrew Watkins has recently written, Chabahar still has a precarious status as a rare exception to US sanctions on Iran and “is a node in a politically contentious trade route”, rivalled by Gwadar port, on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea shore, part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. As a landlocked country, for food and basic supplies Afghanistan relies on unpredictable relationships with its neighbours and with regional partners, marked by persistent tensions.
A Rentier State
The coronavirus is spreading contextually to the US withdrawal and a potential falling off of international aid and interest in Afghanistan, a rentier state with extremely weak capacity to generate, collect and measure its own revenues. Even before the pandemic, the World Bank expected Afghanistan’s fiscal deficit to increase in 2020 as revenue collections stall, donor grants decline, and expenditures increase.
The pandemic will exacerbate this trend in a dual way. The Afghan government relies on customs duties and taxes, which make up approximately one-fifth of all revenues, and the prolonged border closures due to the spread of COVID-19 will adversely affect its fiscal position in 2020. Secondly, “resources are in short supply and so is global solidarity”. The total amounts of external assistance to Afghanistan are likely to shrink, “as donors may prioritize short-term humanitarian aid over medium and long-term development goals”, and the rapid decline of aid and other foreign capital could provoke “inflation; food scarcity and shortages of other essential commodities; even higher unemployment”, writes Barnett Rubin.
The pandemic thus exposes the fragility of the entire socio-economic system built in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Taliban regime, highlighting its continuing dependence on foreign aid, unstable regional supply routes and precarious political accommodation with regional powers. The economic impact of COVID-19 on production, markets and accessibility to food, require a complex, large-scale response that neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban are able to develop, while donors’ current assistance pledges expire in just few months and donors are likely to be preoccupied with domestic concerns for some time. The rapid spread of the virus over the last few weeks and the need to avoid starvation elevates the urgency for peace to unprecedented levels.