Uphill task for Taliban as virus spreads in militant bastions
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The Taliban boasted of their readiness to fight the deadly coronavirus when it first reached Afghanistan, but now the insurgents are struggling to curb its spread in their strongholds.
For months, Habib Rahman, a resident of a Taliban-controlled area in the south of the country, has been unable to test whether his persistent cough is due to the virus. "I have a cough, fever and chest pain," said Rahman, 32, who owns a grocery store in Helmand province. There is neither a centre here to diagnose or treat coronavirus patients, nor is there any effort to create awareness of the disease.
Official figures show Afghanistan has more than 17,000 confirmed cases -- including thousands in Taliban-controlled territories. But an overall shortage of testing kits, medical supplies and a dilapidated health system were compounding problems in tackling the spread, said Ahmed Saeedi, an independent analyst.
Years of war have left Afghanistan with a crumbling health sector, hampering the government's fight against COVID-19. In an attempt to bolster their narrative that they can run Afghanistan better than the struggling administration, the Taliban launched a campaign to tackle the virus in March. They posted images online showing insurgents distributing masks and soap to villagers -- albeit without any social distancing. In one image, masked militants wearing white protective suits check residents' temperatures and explain about personal hygiene as a machinegun is seen on a nearby table.
Disbelief about virus
The virus entered Afghanistan as infected migrants returned from neighbouring Iran, the region's worst-hit country, and the Taliban ordered hundreds of returnees into quarantine. In some areas they controlled, the insurgents allowed government health officials to monitor the virus's spread -- something rare for a group blamed for the deaths of dozens of medics over the years.
But in recent weeks, residents from provinces such as Kunduz, Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar -- where the Taliban hold sway over large areas -- complain they have been abandoned to their fate.
In Kunduz, where the militants fought a fierce night battle before a short nationwide ceasefire last month, insurgents have barred medics. "They said they would handle the virus on their own," said Sebghatullah, a doctor from a nearby district, worried about the residents' lack of awareness when it came to personal hygiene.
Haji Qudratullah, a resident of Helmand, said he recently saw a group of Taliban fighters film a promotional video at a neighbourhood clinic, but they never returned. "I have not seen anybody do anything to raise awareness about the virus here," he said.
Taliban commanders insist they are helping fight the virus. "People who are suffering from high fever, cough and body pain... are taken to Trinkot," said Hafez Mohammad, a Taliban commander, referring to the capital of Uruzgan province.
Even during the Taliban's rule in the late 1990s, Afghanistan's health sector was hit by poor infrastructure, little international aid and underpaid medics. The disease is also sweeping through the Taliban itself, with several high-level militants believed to be sick with COVID-19, according to international media reports. The group deny any of their senior leaders are ill.
'Transgression against religion'
In his annual message marking the Eid holiday, the Taliban's top leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, urged people to seek medical help for the disease. But he also insisted the virus was caused by mankind's "transgression against Allah's religion". To stop the virus, people should "seek forgiveness from Allah and stop violating his commands", Akhundzada said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the militants had distributed booklets explaining how to prevent infections. "Our mobile teams, using motorcycles, are taking people with symptoms to the hospitals," Mujahid told AFP.
Experts, however, said the insurgents faced an uphill task. "There is no ambulance or a professional team that can take their samples or treat these suspected patients," health official Hamid Ahmadi said.
Residents, meanwhile, say they have little information on what to do. "Many people are complaining from flu-like symptoms... we don't know why," said Haji Abdul Bari in Helmand. "Nobody has told us about the symptoms of corona. We don't know anything about it."