Afghanistan likely facing coronavirus 'health disaster' -U.S. watchdog

by Reuters
Friday, 1 May 2020 16:28 GMT

Men wait to receive free food donated by the Afghan government, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Jalalabad, Afghanistan April 28, 2020. REUTERS/Parwiz/File Photo

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Pandemic threatens to derail peace efforts in Afghanistan, watchdog reports

(Adds Pentagon spokesman's comment on withholding of Taliban attack data)

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON, April 30 (Reuters) - Afghanistan, beset by a poor healthcare system, malnutrition, war and other vulnerabilities, likely is facing a "health disaster" from the coronavirus, a watchdog report to the U.S. Congress warns.

The report released late on Thursday by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko could heighten concerns among U.S. officials and lawmakers that the pandemic threatens to derail stalled U.S.-led peace efforts.

The spread of COVID-19 - the illness caused by the novel coronavirus - already has significantly impacted Afghanistan, the report said, from complicating the peace initiative to forcing border crossing closures that have disrupted commercial and humanitarian deliveries.

"Afghanistan's numerous and, in some cases, unique vulnerabilities - a weak healthcare system, widespread malnutrition, porous borders, massive internal displacement, contiguity with Iran, and ongoing conflict - make it likely the country will confront a health disaster in the coming months," the report said.

Rising food prices in the impoverished country is likely to worsen the crisis, Sopko said in a letter accompanying the report.

As the pandemic has spread, Washington has pressed the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to free thousands of at-risk militant and government prisoners as a precursor to peace talks originally set to begin on March 10.

Kabul, however, was not a party to a Feb. 29 U.S. troop withdrawal deal between the Taliban and Washington that called for the releases. Differences over the pace and numbers of prisoners to be freed have helped stall the peace effort, which could suffer a major blow if many prisoners were to die.

Afghanistan has confirmed nearly 2,200 coronavirus cases and 64 deaths, according to local news reports quoting the Health Ministry.

The report said the NATO-led international coalition declined to make available for public release data on the number of attacks launched by the Taliban in the first three months of 2020.

It was the first time that publication of the data has been denied since SIGAR began using them to track levels and locations of violence in 2018, the report said.

The coalition, it said, explained that the data are "now a critical part" of internal U.S. government deliberations on negotiations with the Taliban, who have escalated attacks on Afghan security forces since the Feb. 29 deal.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman on Friday said the data was withheld because they are "part of diplomatic discussions with the Taliban and with State Department and other parties in an effort to bring a diplomatic solution" and releasing them "would not move that ball forward."

"It will be released in the future," he added. (Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Additiona reporting by Idrees Ali, Editing by Mary Milliken, Dan Grebler and Bill Berkrot)