US watchdog: Afghanistan facing coronavirus 'health disaster'

War, poverty and malnutrition among several factors that increase risk

Daily-wage workers wait in line to receive free wheat donated by Afghan businessmen ahead of the upcoming holy fasting month of Ramadan in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, April 20, 2020. Muslims across the world are observing the holy fasting month of Ramadan, when they refrain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn to dusk. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
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The novel coronavirus threatens to create a "health disaster" in Afghanistan because of the country's poor healthcare system, malnutrition, war and other vulnerabilities, a US watchdog said.

A report by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said the spread of COVID-19 has already affected Afghanistan significantly, from complicating peace efforts to forcing border 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 Sigar report said.

Rising food prices in the impoverished country likely will worsen the crisis, the watchdog head, John Sopko, said in a letter accompanying the report to the US Congress.

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.

The Kabul government, however, was not a party to a February 29 US 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 the Health Ministry.

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