Sima Samar: “Fighting jets and sophisticated military items are not going to protect us against the reactions of nature”
One of the poorest countries in the world, ravaged by conflict, and with an extremely weak public health infrastructure, Afghanistan now faces a new challenge: COVID-19. We reached out to 2012 Right Livelihood Laureate Sima Samar, Afghanistan’s Minister for Human Rights, to get more information about how the country and its population are coping with this new crisis.
What is the current situation in Afghanistan right now and what are the major concerns in relation to COVID-19?
According to the ministry of public health there are only around 20,000 cases, but I personally believe that it is much more than that, because we don’t have a wide testing capacity, with only 1,000-1,200 tests that can be made for the whole country. The official data states that 357 people* have died but this counts only those who passed away in the hospital, not all those who died in their homes. Right now, 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.
Besides, this situation triggered an even deeper crisis in the country related to the increase of poverty due to restrictions of movements, as well as loss of jobs/income and economic opportunities. More than 54% of the population now lives under the poverty line, the majority of which are daily laborers. There are no job opportunities. Compared to the pre-COVID situation, the economy is doing really bad.
[Editor’s note: As the interview was conducted in early June, the numbers cited here by Samar are not up to date. On the day of the publication, Afghanistan had more than 32,300 confirmed cases and 800 COVID-related deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.]
And what measures have been taken by the state so far to mitigate this situation?
The government announced big restrictions on movement and quarantine measures. Currently, large cities are the places counting most cases, but I think that it is also because they have testing facilities there. The majority of the population followed the measures and stayed home until people were pushed to get out to be able to feed their children. Many say that they have to decide between dying from coronavirus or dying from hunger. The education centres and universities, even for small private courses, are also all closed. The government tried to close the mosques, but some conservative religious leaders said that “Muslims will not catch the infection”.This led numerous people to believe that they should not follow quarantine measures and ultimately increased the number of infections. In some cases, they had to resort to force to close some facilities in order to comply with the measures.
It seems that wrong information was spread among the population. Are people well informed about the virus now? How is awareness about the virus raised?
There are messages from the government broadcasted on the television and the radio, to explain protection measures. Nevertheless, there were indeed some messages from the right-wing populist leadership which claimed that Muslims would not catch the virus, and if they did, they would die as martyrs, which drove people to be less inclined to follow the government’s recommendations.
Additionally, it is unfortunately true that the government messages exclude a large part of the population. In a country where the majority is uneducated, awareness messages encouraging people to eat more fruits do not apply to the average family who does not have enough income to buy these food items. On an even more basic example, 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. This is especially true for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), who are around 4 million in the country and are living in very bad conditions in overcrowded camps, some in tents or muddy rooms. They do not have access to sanitation facilities or clean water, which is highly problematic during a pandemic like this.
How do the outbreak of COVID-19 and the state’s response interplay with the security situation in the country?
The security situation worsened this past month, with numerous casualties among the armed forces (police, army, militias) but also against civilians. A maternity hospital was targeted in May, with 24 civilian casualties. Nevertheless, there was generally a reduction in violence. The Taliban announced a ceasefire for the 3 days of Eid. This reduction was mostly due to the agreement between the Americans and the Taliban, though perhaps partly also for coronavirus. At the end of the day the Taliban are not immune from COVID-19; viruses do not pick and choose, they try to reach everyone, it is a challenge for everybody. But the agreement certainly played a big part as according to it, the Afghan government was supposed to release 5,000 Taliban from prison, and the Taliban promised that they would release 1,000 Afghan security forces. Now they have begun the release, so far 3,000 were freed by the Afghan government and around 500 by the Taliban.
Throughout your life, you have worked a lot with women and girls, what are specific challenges that they experience with regard to COVID-19?
One of the biggest challenges is increased poverty. Afghanistan counts numerous women who are head of their household after losing their husband. To sustain their families, they perhaps had found work as domestic workers and lost it because of COVID-19. For those relying on handicraft as a source of income, the situation is also precarious, as, since shops are closed, they cannot buy their supplies and therefore build and sell what they produce.
Regarding married women, on the other hand, we see an increase in violence against women. As all children are at home, there is not much entertainment, everybody is frustrated and aggressive. Therefore, men try to impose their masculinity against women in the family. This problem is further worsened by the fact that the structures which were existing before for complaints (e.g. the one run by the minister of women’s affairs or some of the NGOs or to the HR commission) are not really fully functional and even when they are, public transportation is now almost all shut down. This makes reporting increasingly difficult.
Increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies, due to the lockdown, might also be a problem. Access to contraception has definitely been further impaired by this crisis. While there were already few facilities providing free contraception, these health centres might have to close or are now giving priority to COVID-19 and women themselves are afraid to seek doctor’s assistance as they are afraid to get infected there.
The impact is more serious on women than anybody. The feminist network in our area, which organises Zoom conferences and panel discussions, agrees that the impact on women is really bad.
Thinking ahead, what do you think will be the long-term consequences of this pandemic on Afghan society?
The virus pandemic may change the social structure forever. 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/money from this. In Afghanistan, those selling wheat, for instance, will benefit from this, because the price has gone up so much. On the other hand, small businesses are collapsing, which is a real problem. This is actually affecting me personally, as I run a small private university. Our income comes solely from the fees of our students, which have been suspended because of COVID-19, making us unable to pay staff and rent. The question is: what can we do now? They said that we could teach online, but how can you do that when people don’t have computers or internet in their houses?!
Taking it back to a broader level, it will be this kind of things that will also contribute to widening the gap between the rich and the poor, as those who have internet can continue to study, while those who don’t may lose a whole year, or even more perhaps, as we do not know for how long this situation will last.
On a country level, Afghanistan depends on many levels on the donations of other countries. As those countries had to increase their spendings to fight COVID-19 domestically, they will probably decrease the aid they give to others, with long-lasting consequences on the most vulnerable, such as women or the IDPs.
And what do you see as being the potential long term impact on the conflict from COVID-19?
The increase in poverty, coupled with the rise of authoritarian regimes and ideologies, can lead to more protest and resistance. We can currently observe this in the United States. I personally believe, but I hope I am wrong, that the conflicts will not reduce. Because the current kind of political leadership, not only in Afghanistan but also in other countries, do not care enough about the well-being of the people.
How do you see the world after this pandemic? What is there to learn?
As human beings, we have to think twice about what we have done. Hopefully, this puts us in a position in which we understand that we should not destroy nature further, considering that a small virus could kill almost half a million people. Secondly, I think we also should really learn that fighting jets and sophisticated military items are not going to protect us against the reactions of nature. The countries who have more sophisticated weapons are weirdly more impacted by the COVID-19. Look at the US, look at Russia, countries with very sophisticated armed forces and militarised functions are all vulnerable against corona.
All our actions after COVID-19, all our policies should be based on human rights approach, promotion of equality, and better social services, particularly the health services. This virus has shown to all of us that we are not doing enough from the social services point of view.