HERAT -- Efforts by the Taliban to prevent health workers from entering areas under their control during the coronavirus pandemic are putting thousands of Afghan lives at risk, officials say.
The disease continues to expand its foothold in Afghanistan, with 1,330 confirmed cases so far, including 43 deaths, the Public Health Ministry said Friday (April 24).
"The problem we face in fighting the coronavirus in Badghis is that the Taliban won't allow health teams to enter areas under their control to raise awareness and detect cases," said Dr. Abdul Latif Rustayee, director of the Badghis Department of Public Health.
"Our district health teams have tried several times to go to areas under the Taliban's control, but the Taliban denied them entry," he said. "We are very concerned about the condition of residents of villages under the Taliban's control. Their lives could be at risk because of the coronavirus."
"If some positive cases emerge in those areas, they can cause many infections and endanger many lives," he added.
The militants are causing the same problem in Herat, said Dr. Muhammad Asef Kabir, deputy director of the Herat Department of Public Health.
"Health teams operate in all district centres throughout Herat Province, and they have the necessary equipment and supplies for fighting the coronavirus, but the health teams haven't been able to enter certain insecure areas," he said. "We call on the Taliban not to deny entry to health teams so that they can protect lives from the coronavirus threat."
Meanwhile, in Ghor Province, there are suspected cases of the coronavirus in insecure areas such as Charsadda District, said Dr. Jumagul Yaqobi, director of the Ghor Department of Public Health.
"Health teams are trying to visit those regions, but the Taliban haven't co-operated," he said.
"The Taliban's interference in healthcare delivery during this critical situation ... is a matter of serious concern," said Yaqobi. "We hope that the Taliban don't continue to restrict health workers' entry to areas under their control. If these restrictions remain in place, it will expose residents of those areas to huge risks."
Health teams still haven't been able to enter areas under the Taliban's control in Farah Province, said Dr. Abdul Jabbar Shaiq, director of the Farah Department of Public Health.
"With the help of tribal elders, we are trying to send health teams to certain districts and villages [where the Taliban are in control] so that they can help the residents fight against the coronavirus," he said.
"During the past month, hundreds of Afghans have returned from Iran to Farah, and most of them have gone back to their homes in the districts," said Shaiq. "We have a serious concern that the might have brought the coronavirus with them from Iran and possibly transmitted it to their family members and neighbours."
An un-Islamic act
The Taliban must not benefit from putting innocent civilians' lives at risk, said Abdul Aziz Baik, chairman of the Badghis provincial council.
"We condemn the Taliban for denying health workers entry to districts and villages, and we call this an un-Islamic and inhuman act," said Baik. "The vicious coronavirus has put the world at risk, and the poor Afghan people are in dire need of the government and the international community's support."
"Depriving the public of health services at this critical situation is a violation of human rights," he added. "The Taliban should allow the government to deliver aid because they are not prepared to battle the coronavirus."
"We call on the Taliban not to interfere in healthcare delivery because everyone can contract the coronavirus, and even the Taliban can get infected," said Sebghatullah Obaidi, a resident of Herat city. "If health workers are able to go to all those areas, they can stop the coronavirus outbreak and beat the virus."
"In areas where the Taliban don't allow health workers to operate, the coronavirus can spread and put lives at risk," he added.
If the virus outbreak is not stopped, more Afghans will get infected and many might die, he said.
The presence of doctors is equally important in cities and districts, especially at this critical juncture, said Gul Ahmad Muhammadi, a resident of Herat city.
"The Taliban should know that the health sector is not related to politics, and they better not interfere with it," he added. "The Taliban should understand that they are playing with lives if they hinder the fight against the coronavirus."
Taliban's deadly attacks continue
In addition to denying health team access to areas, the group has compounded the health crisis by stepping up its deadly assaults.
The Taliban perpetrated 2,162 attacks between March 3 and April 7, including assaults on security forces and civilians in Herat, Farah, Ghor and Badghis provinces, according to TOLOnews.
On April 9, the Taliban abducted five employees of Da Afghanistan Bank who worked at Islam Qala Customs Facility on Herat–Islam Qala highway and fatally shot them.
In the Taqcha Valley area of Pashtun Zarghun District in Herat Province, the Taliban prevented the distribution of food to 500 families, Herat Police Chief Obaidullah Noorzai said on April 14.
"Security forces then launched an operation that facilitated the entry of 150 tonnes of food items and some medical supplies and medicine to these villages," he added.
During the operation, 10 Taliban fighters were killed or injured and the road to the Taqcha Valley was reopened, he said, without disclosing the specific breakdown of Taliban casualties.
"The Taliban don't allow entry to doctors, but when we receive such a complaint, we take action and remove those obstacles," Noorzai said. "The security forces are helping civilians gain access to health services when they need it."
"The public should not be worried... our operations wing is fully prepared, and whenever needed, these forces can attack the enemies in any district," he said.
"We condemn the Taliban's recent attacks," said Omaid Haqjo, a resident of Herat city. "The Taliban need to stand with their people at this critical time and not kill them. The security forces fight in hot and cold weather alike and sacrifice their blood to protect the public. This shows that the security forces love the Afghan people."
Now is the best opportunity for the Taliban to renounce violence and choose the option of peace, he said.