The New York-based organization also criticized dispute between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah over leadership amid the pandemic.
“The spiraling COVID-19 crisis puts millions of Afghans at risk, yet Afghan officials are consumed with infighting and the Taliban with adversarial posturing,” saidPatricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The two sides need to work together with the UN and humanitarian agencies to ensure that aid reaches the whole country, or a dire situation will become catastrophic.”
The most vulnerable communities in Afghanistan, HRW said, include millions of internally displaced people and rural communities where health services are already very limited. Cooperation between the government and Taliban could include such measures as ensuring access for humanitarian agencies throughout the country, maintaining and expanding emergency food pipelines, and coordinating public dissemination of information about COVID-19, it said.
Afghan government has registered 170 cases of coronavirus. The country’s health minister has warned that half of the population could be infected while 100,000 would die if coronavirus is not taken seriously.
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an extremely weak public health infrastructure. Thecountry already faces severe health problems, including communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, high rates of maternal mortality, and widespread malnutrition. These factors increase the likelihood that COVID-19 could quickly overwhelm Afghanistan’s fragile health system, HRW said.
The Afghan government and the Taliban have held three video conferences to discuss prisoner releases after the group signed a peace deal with the United States a month ago.
Similar video-conferenced meetings should begin immediately on ways to coordinate on the COVID-19 crisis, Human Rights Watch said. They should include representatives from the Public Health Ministry, the Taliban’s health commission, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), and key international humanitarian agencies already providing health services in both government-held and Taliban-held parts of Afghanistan, it added.
President Ashraf Ghani has ordered release of 10,000 prisoners over coronavirus fears, but those would not include Taliban.
HRW said that upcoming negotiations should include expanding those releases – including prisoners in Taliban custody – ensuring adequate health care services for all prisoners and detainees, and reducing infection risks in these facilities.
“Both sides need to end all attacks on health workers and medical facilities,” Gossman said. “The Afghan government, the Taliban, and international agencies need to quickly devise ways to cooperate on ensuring essential containment measures and health services protect all Afghans.”