When Afghanistan recorded its first case of COVID-19 in February, in Herat province, the government was focused on many other pressing priorities - forming a new government and implementing a peace deal just signed between the Taliban and the United States.
As infection numbers soared throughout March in Herat, the country had difficulty tracking, testing, and isolating new cases. Despite the lockdown in major population centers, the number of cases has continued to surge upwards. The official tally of COVID-19 cases was more than 36,719 and deaths at over 1,284 as of August 5, though this probably represents a fraction of the real situation on the ground.
Impacted by mounting political and security uncertainties even before the pandemic, COVID-19 has hit Afghanistan hard.
Responding rapidly to the crisis
Aware of the threats of the coronavirus outbreak on the fragile health system and the economy, the World Bank moved quickly, fast-tracking a $100-million emergency grant on April 2, to help Afghanistan strengthen its public health preparedness.
This support enabled the Afghan government to reinforce health care services, to detect and isolate COVID-19 cases, to improve testing capabilities, and for hospitals and other medical facilities to stock up on critical medical supplies and equipment.
While COVID-19 cases spread across the country, misinformation about the disease spread even faster. Social media played an important role in promoting precautionary measures but was also filled with an avalanche of misconceptions and unfounded evidence. Some in rural communities resorted to taking antibiotics, while many young people in urban centers denied being infected - both because of the stigma surrounding the disease and fear of going into quarantine.
To tackle this spread of misinformation, the Ministry of Public Health, with World Bank support, implemented awareness campaigns disseminating life-saving messages, encouraging self-quarantine, social distancing, wearing face masks, frequent handwashing and advising against ineffective and harmful treatments to ward off the disease.
Support to economy
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent containment measures have had a significant negative impact on the already fragile Afghan economy.
To help Afghanistan maintain its reform momentum through this difficult period and provide vital financial support to manage revenue shortfalls, the World Bank approved a second grant of $160 million in May. Together with a $240-million grant from the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), this $400-million support sustains a range of key economic and public finance reforms to improve business regulation and encourage private investment, expand social inclusion, and support civil service reforms.
Considering the crucial role businesses play, the World Bank also provided in early July a $200 million grant to help provide relief to vulnerable people and businesses. This package will support the government strengthen policies that promote faster recovery and keep basic infrastructure such as water, electricity, and telecommunications afloat and running.
This package will support the government strengthen policies that promote faster recovery and keep basic infrastructure such as water, electricity, and telecommunications afloat and running.
Securing livelihoods for the poorest
The worst impact of the COVID-19 crisis, however, has been on the livelihoods of the poorest and most vulnerable.
A new $280 million grant, approved this week, will provide Relief to Afghan Communities and Households (REACH) through grants to Community Development Councils, for purchasing food and sanitation packages. The project is expected to benefit almost 2.9 million households across Afghanistan.
The project will complement a parallel relief effort being organized through the Citizens’ Charter, the government’s flagship development program. Together, both projects will cover 90 percent of the country under the “Dastarkhan-e-Milli” program benefitting an estimated 4.1 million households with incomes of $2 a day or less.
The World Bank also approved a $100 million grant this week to increase agricultural production and strengthen critical commercial food supply chains, especially wheat.
More support is planned to improve water supply, sanitation and hygiene as part of the COVID-19 response
Continued support to the people of Afghanistan
World Bank support will not end here.More support is planned to improve water supply, sanitation, and hygiene as part of the COVID-19 response. We are also working to strengthen financial intermediation so that micro, small and medium enterprises can have access to finance, and to expand the use of mobile money throughout the country.
As one of Afghanistan's major development partners, the World Bank remains committed to helping the country in the fight against COVID-19, and stand by the Afghan people, who remain resilient through these uncertain and difficult times.