Sima Samar: COVID-19 could “change the social structure forever” in Afghanistan
COVID-19 has exposed inequalities in Afghanistan’s already fragile social fabric and has plunged the country into an economic crisis that will only widen the gap between the country’s rich and poor, said Sima Samar, the country’s minister for human rights. Samar, who received the 2012 Right Livelihood Award, has long worked towards advancing human and especially women’s rights in Afghanistan through educational and healthcare initiatives. She now fears that the pandemic might significantly worsen the already precarious situation.
The health crisis has triggered an economic downturn, which can have far-reaching consequences in the country where 54 per cent of the population had been living below the poverty line before the pandemic hit.
“The virus … may change the social structure forever,” Samar said. “It first and foremost increases inequalities: while we see a large increase in poverty, there is a very small amount of people who are gaining more power and money from this.”
Those benefiting from the economic turmoil include people selling wheat, whose price has gone up, while small business owners are struggling.
The virus itself has also taken a toll on the healthcare system. According to the latest tally by Johns Hopkins University, Afghanistan has had more than 32,300 confirmed cases and more than 800 deaths, which figures are relatively low for a country with a population of more than 37 million.
However, Samar noted that the numbers were likely much higher in reality due to the lack of testing available in the country.
“People refrain from going to the hospital because there are not enough facilities to accommodate all cases and people are afraid that they will get infected there,” she said.
Poverty might also be an impediment to the country’s efforts to stop the spread of the virus. People are increasingly breaking government-issued stay-at-home orders to provide for themselves and their families.
“Many say that they have to decide between dying from Coronavirus or dying from hunger,” Samar noted.
While the government has put stringent measures and restrictions in place, there has been also a great deal of misinformation spread by right-wing leaders claiming that “Muslims would not catch the virus,” Samar said. This has also made it harder for public health measures to be effective.
Then, there are also cases where the government’s advice on hygiene is simply not possible to follow due to poor living conditions.
“While the government advises washing hands multiple times a day, numerous people in Afghanistan do not have access to clean water so they would not be able to follow such recommendations,” Samar said.
This is especially true for the 4 million internally displaced persons who live in overcrowded camps with no sanitation.
Faced with all these challenges and dwindling foreign aid, Afghanistan will have the difficult task of managing and recovering from the pandemic, while also making sure that the most vulnerable populations, including women, are protected.
“All our actions after COVID, all our policies should be based on a human rights approach, the promotion of equality, and better social services, particularly the health services,” Samar said. “This virus has shown to all of us that we are not doing enough from the social services point of view.”
At the same time, COVID-19 breaking havoc on countries globally should also be a wake-up call for governments to allocate resources to the most important issues, including stopping the destruction of the environment, Samar warned.
“Fighting jets and sophisticated military items are not going to protect us,” she said.