afghan

A shootout erupted on Saturday at a protest in western Afghanistan by residents demanding economic assistance, leading to the deaths of at least six people including a local reporter and two police officers, officials said.

The reporter has been identified as local volunteer radio presenter Ahmadkhan Nawid, according to the Afghanistan Journalists’ Centre.

The protesters were demanding relief after weeks of restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic. The protesters angry at the distribution of food aid clashed with security forces.

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesperson Tareq Arian said the protesters had gathered outside the governor’s office in Feroz Koh, the capital of the western Ghor province. Some people at the protest opened fire at police, igniting a gun battle that killed the six people and wounded another 19, including nine police.

The ministry has launched an investigation and plans to send a delegation to the province.

Afghanistan was already mired in poverty before the onset of the pandemic, which has infected nearly 3,800 people in the country and killed at least 109. Many Afghans rely on day labor, which has dried up because of the closure of nonessential businesses.

The violence began after demonstrators gathered in Firozkoh to complain about the perceived failure to help the poor during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gunmen in the crowd attacked a government office, prompting security forces to open fire, the interior ministry says.

Afghan Vice-President Amrullah Saleh wrote on Facebook that the incident was “shocking” and announced that the government was “seriously investigating” it.

He also assured Afghans that no-one would miss out on the food aid being distributed to help those plunged further into poverty as a result of the restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

The chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission told Reuters news agency that in the past week it had received complaints that food aid was being distributed unfairly.

“We hear repeated complaints from people that the ones who are receiving the limited aid that is there are not the ones that are most deserving, they are the ones who have connections to local authorities or local officials,” Shaharzad Akbar said.

Poverty and pandemic

Poverty and conflict has already put pressure on Afghanistan’s health system. Now, there is the pandemic.

Save the Children has already warned that lockdowns have put 7 million children at risk of hunger.

In northern Kunduz province, a hospital where a fifth of staff have been quarantined with suspected infections remains open to receive war wounded from the battles raging nearby because there is nowhere else to treat them.

The Taliban has allowed health officials in the south to travel to rural areas, including those under militant control, to provide coronavirus information and checks, doctors and officials say. But information reaching Afghanistan’s scattered villages may be too little, too late to stop the disease spreading.

Cases have been rising sharply in neighboring Kandahar , and there are also infections thought to have been imported directly to the province from Iran, by people trying to flee the epidemic there.

People have no access to heath equipment; they don’t heed the lockdown or cooperate with public health, and there is also no information about the virus in remote areas.

In nearby Helmand province, the situation is even more grave, said Abdul Majid Akhundzada, a member of the provincial council.

Abdul Majid Akhundzada said:

“In terms of equipment, we have zero of that, nothing. We have no lab to test suspected people, no testing kits, no place even to isolate the patients there. There are masks and gloves in the shops that people are buying for themselves.

“Civilians and security forces continue to die in frontlines and their homes. The people of Helmand are so vulnerable: both corona and the war are killing them.”

Hunger

In Kabul, residents face stark choice between providing food for their families and limiting risk of coronavirus. Food prices have already soared, though government and religious leaders are calling on shopkeepers to not take advantage of the situation.

The streets of Kabul, a city of around six million people, went into lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Many residents defied the order. Beneath billboards warning of the dangers of the virus, casual laborers, shoeshiners and vendors kept on working until an increased police crackdown saw parts of the city become quieter.

The announcement to shut down Kabul came as public health minister Ferozuddin Feroz decried people’s carelessness. “If we don’t take the coronavirus seriously, it will take us seriously,” Feroz said, adding that this was why the country needed to “apply these health guidelines”.

Feroz said: “Estimates show that more than 25 million people could become infected in Afghanistan, with at least 16 million showing symptoms. The spread can be prevented if measures are implemented.”

While the lockdown is necessary, many fear it could leave people struggling even harder to survive in the impoverished, war-torn country. Many already feel burdened by the responsibility of making sure their families have enough to eat. At least 60,000 children work in Kabul alone to substitute family incomes, according to Unicef.

In a further effort to curb infections, the government has announced the release of thousands of prisoners from its crammed prisons.

But with unemployment soaring and businesses closed, many fear a spike in violent crimes and burglaries.

Kabul’s governor Mohammad Yaqub Heidari has ordered conference and wedding halls to be turned into isolation shelters for Afghans arriving from abroad.

Afghanistan has seen four decades of war, but the hardest times lie ahead, said Abdul Qayum Rahimi, governor of Herat province.

“Afghanistan wasn’t ready to face a challenge like this,” he said. “Even fighting the Taliban is different. You can see them and you know their weapons. The coronavirus needs a microscope, of which we don’t have many.”

Afghanistan’s healthcare system is severely overstretched and – prior to the pandemic – had only allocated about $5 (£4) annually for each of its 35 million citizens.

Newly announced U.S. aid cuts of $1bn have applied further pressure.

Rahimi, who has described the pandemic as “the most stressful time” of his life, said, “This isn’t the time for politicians to fight, but to come together and lead Afghanistan to progress.”


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