Afghanistan faces “catastrophe” as growing COVID-19 cases stretch a health infrastructure already severely weakened by decades of war, the Afghan Red Crescent Society said on Tuesday.

Some 34,740 coronavirus cases and 1,062 deaths from the respiratory pandemic have been officially reported in Afghanistan, according to government figures.
“Afghanistan is on the edge of potential health, social and economic catastrophes caused by COVID-19 as the disease places a crippling burden on one of the 10 most fragile states in the world,” the Red Crescent Society said in a statement.

“The real toll of the pandemic on the Afghan population is expected to be much higher and remains under-reported due to limited testing and weak health systems,” it added.

Red Crescent Secretary General Nilab Mobarez said acute protective equipment shortages and difficulties in accessing remote regions were hampering its COVID-19 response. But it was expanding mobile health teams and adding thousands of community volunteers to try and detect and prevent the disease, which it said it expected to spread over coming weeks.

Afghanistan’s health department said it was concerned that less than a third of those confirmed to have the disease were women, which officials believed was due to a lack of female access to healthcare in a deeply conservative society.

“The Ministry of Health is concerned about women’s access to health services,especially now that we are at the height of the corona crisis…What we have done is to hire more female staff, and we have separated (out) wards for women in hospitals,” health ministry deputy spokeswoman Masouma Jafari said.

Meanwhile,the World Bank said that the coronavirus pandemic is expected to severely weaken Afghanistan’s economy, as donor governments struggle themselves and uncertainty over peace talks curb private investment.

The World Bank said it was forecasting gross domestic product to contract between 5.5% and 7.4% in 2020, compared with growth of 2.9% in 2019, with more than 70% of the population expected to slip under the poverty line.

“COVID-19 has hit Afghanistan in the midst of a difficult political transition, an intensifying conflict, and significant uncertainty regarding future grant support,” Henry Kerali, World Bank Afghanistan director, told reporters.

Due to the lockdown, domestic government revenue is expected to fall up to 30% at a time when the economists and diplomats say Afghanistan is facing a likely fall in foreign funding as countries deal with their own economic crises at home and the United States withdraws troops and attempts to usher peace talks between the insurgent Taliban and the Afghan government.

With few options to borrow and investment stalled by years conflict, the government is heavily reliant on foreign aid. Pledges made by foreign donors in 2016 run out this year, with a conference to renew pledges due in November.“Without progress towards a sustainable peace and commitments to continued grant support from international partners, medium-term prospects appear increasingly grim,” the World Bank said.

Ministry of Finance spokesman Shamroz Khan Masjedi said the government was concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.

“There will be more unemployment, more poverty and reduction in government revenue because many business and economic activities … have stopped,” he said.