KABUL -- The Taliban's ongoing effort to paint itself as a group that cares about public health amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak is blatantly hypocritical, analysts and citizens say, as the group for decades has attacked medical facilities, killed doctors, and blocked civilians from receiving critical vaccinations.
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban's Qatar office, said in a tweet on March 16 that the group "via its health commission assures all international health organizations and the WHO of its readiness to cooperate and coordinate with them in combatting the coronavirus".
That statement contrasts with years of Taliban opposition to international healthcare efforts in Afghanistan, and specifically with the Taliban's attitude last April, when they expelled the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Red Cross from areas under their control.
In a similar expression of Taliban anxiety that was completely absent last year, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said March 15, "There are about 40,000 people living in prisons in Afghanistan where there are no hygiene or healthcare facilities, making it a serious threat."
The chastened militants know that the virus spreads rapidly and that their jailed colleagues and members on the outside alike will not stay safe, said Dr. Meena Naz of Kabul.
Therefore, they are now co-operating with health workers, Naz said.
The same militants "are responsible for the meager state of health care in Afghanistan as doctors, paramedics and nurses aren't ready to provide vaccinations and services," she said.
"They have damaged health facilities and killed health workers for giving vaccinations, which they argue were against Islamic teachings," she added.
In the just the past half year, the Taliban shut down dozens of health facilities in Maidan Wardak Province run by a Swedish aid group, and followed up a month later with a car bomb that leveled a hospital in Zabul.
These are just two of the countless examples of Taliban action that have undermined public health in the past few decades.
Across the border in Pakistan, other medics expressed similar scorn for the Taliban's sudden anxieties about disease.
The Taliban's concern for more than 5,000 of its members being held in Afghan prisons is a joke because the militants have in the past prevented health workers from giving vaccinations in areas they control, said Dr. Abdur Rauf, a former district health officer in Swat, Pakistan.
"The Taliban argued that preventive medicine was against Islam prior to occurrence of the ailment [coronavirus]," said Rauf.
"They use this tactic to tell Afghans and the world that they are concerned about Afghans' health, but the reality is that they don't care ... as they continue to jeopardise the lives of Afghans every day with their terrorist attacks," said Aminullah Shariq, a Kabul-based political analyst.
"The Taliban don't even have the ability to treat their wounded," said Shariq. "They take them to health facilities in neighbouring countries. How are they able to fight the coronavirus?"
"If the Taliban really want to save ... lives, they have to agree to a ceasefire and make peace and fight the coronavirus together with the government," he said.
The Taliban have ulterior motives asking for international intervention, said Nasir Ahmadi, 26, a Kabul resident.
"They're just trying to get money from international organisations and spend it on their terrorist activities," he said.
"The Taliban put thousands of lives at risk by killing doctors and blowing up hospitals and health clinics," said Ahmadi. "This group has no plan to protect lives."
"The Taliban have narcotics labs and production centres instead of health laboratories and clinics."
Even if the Taliban had the will to help, they have no ability to fight the coronavirus, say analysts.
"The Taliban ... don't have any resources, trained doctors, medical equipment, health personnel, hospitals or clinics," said Dr. Yarbaz Khan Hamidi, chairman of the Health Committee in the Afghan Wolesi Jirga (lower chamber of parliament).
To fight the pandemic, the Taliban "have to allow doctors and other health personnel from the government to go to the areas under Taliban control", said Hamidi.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a televised speech on Tuesday (March 24) urged the insurgents to declare a ceasefire if only to help others fight the disease.
"Those who live in areas under the Taliban's control are Afghans ... I have the responsibility to protect their lives," he said. "Therefore, I call on the Taliban to say yes to religious scholars' calls [for the Taliban to make peace] and declare a ceasefire so that we can fight the coronavirus."
The Taliban's request for global health organisations to help fight the disease is just propaganda, said other officials.
"If the Taliban had the intention to fight the coronavirus, they would agree to a ceasefire and work together with the government and security forces," said Khalid Asad, a representative of Paktika Province, Afghanistan, in the Wolesi Jirga.
Instead, "they hope to attract the world's attention," he said.
In contrast, the Afghan government has been vigorously fighting the pandemic.
"It has allocated millions of dollars to fight this virus," said Shariq. "It has opened health centres to treat patients who contracted the virus and prevented its further spreading, while the Taliban have just chanted slogans and have done nothing practical."
The Afghan government has run public awareness campaigns, allocated specialised materials to hospitals, set up special hospitals and set up special coronavirus control units, among other measures, added Waheed Majroh, an adviser to the Afghan Public Health Ministry.
"The government has allocated $25 million to fight the coronavirus pandemic," he said.
The Afghan Taliban are not the only militants to suddenly express interest in public health.
The "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) in its Al Naba newsletter urged operatives to steer clear of coronavirus-hit Europe, calling it "the land of the epidemic", Gulf News reported March 15.
The terror outfit, which used to encourage attacks in Europe, now urges followers in Europe who may have become ill with coronavirus to stay there and thus prevent the disease from spreading.
It instructs followers to "cover their mouths when yawning and sneezing" and to wash their hands regularly.
"The world should understand that militants ... have no regard for the public but want to stay safe themselves," said Dr. Umar Khan of Peshawar, a former employee of the WHO.
The militant groups operating throughout the world have been misinterpreting Islam for their own agenda, he added.
"Militants have no knowledge of medical matters and therefore misguide [the public] in the name of Islam," he said.
[Ashfaq Yusufzai from Peshawar and Sulaiman from Kabul contributed to this report]