An Action Against Hunger hygiene education session in Pakistan.

Millions at risk as Afghanistan and Pakistan lift containment measures before COVID-19 peaks

Action Against Hunger is deeply concerned about the threat of hunger caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on vulnerable populations living in countries already weakened by conflict, climate change, and poverty. As the health crisis rapidly worsens, with more than 30,000 confirmed cases in Afghanistan and 206,512 cases in Pakistan, we call for immediate efforts to protect the most vulnerable people and to fund nongovernmental organizations working in the region.

International and national donors and decision-makers should introduce appropriate means and long-term strategies to fight the pandemic. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, where COVID-19 cases are on the rise, the time has come to sound the alarm in support of local communities and to act as countries relax or even completely lift containment measures, thereby exposing their populations to unavoidable health risks.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is a long-lasting crisis that requires a flexible, multi-level response from donors and policymakers," said Jennifer Ankrom-Khan, Country Director for Action Against Hunger in Pakistan. "As confinement ends and social distancing becomes sporadic, we need to define clear policies that take into account the economic and health consequences.

In light of the latest estimates on potential deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan due to COVID-19, ending containment measures and abandoning physical distancing protocols during such a critical period seems dangerous. Action Against Hunger is alarmed at the rapid spread of virus, as well as the lack of testing centers and limited means to protect the most vulnerable people in the region.

"In Afghanistan, even though containment measures have been lifted, we have seen a decrease in the number of people visiting our health centers, mainly due to fear of contracting COVID-19. This trend will have serious repercussions and long-term consequences, and we must move from a short-term emergency response approach to new ways of working," said Anaïs Hely-Joly, Director of Action Against Hunger in Afghanistan.

Due to border closures and containment measures, unusually high food prices in the region further exacerbate access to food for families already living below the poverty line. In Pakistan alone, wheat and wheat flour prices increased by 4.9% and 8.4%. Afghanistan has also experienced a sharp increase in food prices of about 10 to 20% compared to the same period last year, and the prices continue to rise, diminishing the purchasing power of informal workers and farmers. In addition, lack of testing capacity in Afghanistan and challenges in accessing testing sites in Pakistan, where most of the testing facilities are major cities, will put millions of people at risk, especially in rural areas.

"Protecting lives is our top priority. Medical aid will help thousands of people to overcome the peak of the pandemic, but we need to put in place sustainable food security and development programs to stay ahead of the curve," added Anaïs Hely-Joly.

Action Against Hunger in Pakistan

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and, despite containment measures, Action Against Hunger has treated more than 68,000 severely malnourished children in Pakistan. Our teams work in the rural areas of Sindh, the country's second largest food-producing province, where 46% of children are stunted and 23% suffer from wasting. Out therapeutic sites and outpatient stabilization centers continue to operate and provide lifesaving services on a daily basis.

Local authorities and civil society organizations in Pakistan must act together to respond to confusion among the population, who are tired and distrustful after months of confinement, without clear and coherent information.

Action Against Hunger in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, where more than 10 million people are acutely food insecure, Action Against Hunger’s health and nutrition programs continue. While the recent political context may provide a ray of hope, continued violence is now seen as a threat not only to the security of communities, but also to public health, as it can hamper detection of disease and disrupt lifesaving medical care.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, Action Against Hunger has provided treatment to more than 9,400 malnourished children in Afghanistan. Our teams are working with communities in four provinces across the country to disseminate information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, through hand-washing promotion sessions, radio messages and community dialogues with the mullahs' involvement to ensure the message is spread and encourage communities to return to health centers.

Action Against Hunger is the world’s hunger specialist and leader in a global movement that aims to end life-threatening hunger for good within our lifetimes. For 40 years, the humanitarian and development organization has been on the front lines, treating and preventing hunger across nearly 50 countries. It served more than 21 million people in 2018 alone.