In the nearly two weeks since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, it has endeavored to convince the world that it plans to be a functional national government – yet the jihadists have offered no indication they plan to address the largest public health crisis facing the world today, the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has held two press conferences since the takeover of Kabul on August 15, opening the floor to questions from international journalists. Questions arose on both occasions regarding what a Taliban regime would look like, who the jihadists would appoint to run various ministries, and if they intend to allow girls to go to school and women to work.
No journalist has asked Mujahid if the Taliban intends to impose coronavirus lockdowns, mask mandates, or if the terrorists have organized a plan to acquire and distribute vaccines.
Afghanistan has previously received shipments of the vaccine products by European company AstraZeneca, American company Johnson & Johnson, and Chinese company Sinopharm. The Taliban maintain close ties to the Chinese Communist Party, which may offer free shipments of vaccines, but evidence from other countries indicates that flooding the vaccine market with low-quality Chinese-made vaccine products may result in an increase, not reduction, in cases.
Neither Mujahid nor fellow spokesman Suhail Shaheen has offered any insight into what coronavirus protocol will look like once the Taliban completes the process of organizing itself from a jihadist terrorist sect into a government. Experts doubt that currently available Afghan coronavirus statistics, from the Ministry of Health, are accurate data as Afghanistan’s healthcare system is barely functional and testing is largely impossible to conduct in much of the country. A Taliban takeover will likely do little to improve these statistics.
The questions are particularly relevant given the poor state of Afghanistan’s health system and its proximity to China, the country where the Chinese coronavirus originated, with whom it shares a border. In light of decades of violent anti-vaccination efforts by jihadists in Pakistan and the greater region – including Taliban members – the Taliban’s stance on coronavirus vaccination will also be critical in how the country confronts the pandemic.
Pajhwok, an Afghan news organization, reported on Tuesday that Afghanistan had documented 7,090 deaths attributable to coronavirus since the pandemic began in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. The country has documented 152,660 cases of the disease in that time. It claimed the Ministry of Public Health had managed to confirm 62 cases and seven deaths in the 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday – suggesting the Ministry of Health remains at least partially functional under Taliban rule.
Early signs suggest the situation will worsen significantly in the immediate future. UNICEF warned on Wednesday that Afghanistan had seen an 80 percent drop in the number of vaccinations since the Taliban took over the country. The agency compared the 143,600 people vaccinated the week before August 15 to the 30,500 the week after, according to Reuters. The United Nations, through the World Health Organization’s (W.H.O.) Covax initiative, donated 1.4 million doses of the American Johnson & Johnson vaccine to Afghanistan in early July. The remaining doses are, presumably, now in the hands of the Taliban.
UNICEF’s concern on Wednesday echoed the W.H.O.’s alarm in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover.
“As the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate rapidly, W.H.O. is extremely concerned over the unfolding safety and humanitarian needs in the country, including risk of disease outbreaks and rise in COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] transmission,” the U.N. agency said in a statement on August 17.
While raising the issue more than international journalists, the United Nations has gone out of its way to ensure not to blame the Taliban for any potential deterioration in the pandemic situation in the country. The W.H.O. blamed, among other factors, “disruptions at [the Kabul] airport,” “crowding at health facilities,” and unspecified “rising conflict” for the humanitarian crisis.
Images out of Kabul on Wednesday, following the Taliban’s edict banning Afghan nationals from entering it, appear to confirm the worst fears public health officials have expressed. Mobs of Afghans, apparently attempting to enter the airport through an entrance unguarded by Taliban terrorists, convened in what appeared to be a knee-deep moat of sewage outside the gates of the airport.
— Ian Pannell (@IanPannell) August 25, 2021
The W.H.O. noted a significant spike in documented coronavirus symptoms among people in densely populated and conflict-ridden parts of Afghanistan, but a lack of ability to test for cases means no concrete way of recording a rise in diagnoses currently exists. It did not name the Taliban in sharing this information.
UNICEF, which described itself as “optimistic” in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban seizure of Kabul, went further, excusing the nosedive in vaccinations under the Taliban as “understandable.”
Others have gone so far as to suggest that Taliban terrorism, despite the evidence of looming public health disaster, may actually help contain the virus.
“One unintended consequence of people staying home due to fear of the Taliban might be great social distancing and hence reducing the spread of COVID-19,” Carl Latkin, a department vice chair at Johns Hopkins’ School of Public Health, told the Science and Development Network in remarks published this weekend.
The lack of accountability in the Taliban’s handling of the pandemic will likely have global repercussions, as much of the West now engages in a mad dash to evacuate as many people from Afghanistan as possible. President Joe Biden’s administration, which claims to have evacuated tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan since the Taliban’s return to power, reportedly began waiving a coronavirus test requirement for Afghan refugees last week. Countries from Qatar to Germany have been facilitating the return of both their own nations and the escape of Afghans seeking to avoid Taliban retribution, likely facing similar challenges with ensuring pandemic safety protocols remain in place.