In the wake of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan and U.S. forces, diplomats, and aid workers pulling out of the country, there are many yet unanswered questions about how exactly the country will approach women’s rights and public health policy as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and diseases like polio, which was on the verge of becoming a thing of the past.
Here’s a quick update on what has happened since the Taliban takeover and what may lie ahead regarding these critical health and science issues.
Over the past 20 years, women’s rights made great progress in Afghanistan, particularly in Kabul. Many women have climbed the highest ranks of several professions in the country including medicine, academia, law, and journalism. However, under Taliban rule, this progress is already being undone.
Afghanistan has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the world with 638 per 100,000 live births, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). However, this figure – which had improved over the past 20 years – only stands to worsen as doctors, including women who are gynecologists, are fleeing the country due to Taliban death threats.
As a result of foreign and local medical professionals fleeing the country and those who remain being limited in their ability to practice medicine due to Taliban threats, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates there could be “51,000 additional maternal deaths, 4.8 million unintended pregnancies, and a near doubling of the unmet need for family planning between now and 2025.”
Meanwhile, local media has not been able to operate with as much independence to shine a spotlight on these issues, with fewer than 100 of Kabul’s 700 women journalists still on the job with private media outlets, according to Reporters Without Borders. These journalists are also no longer able to rely on legal protections from the judicial system as it is being reshaped by the Taliban and the country’s 250 women judges are currently in hiding, fearing retaliation from prisoners they incarcerated which have now been set free by the Taliban.
As a result of this climate of fear, many of the country’s best and brightest have fled. Recently it was headline news around the world when five members of a famed robotics team made up of women and girls – as young as 14 – along with several members of the media fled the country and landed safely in Mexico.
COVID-19 has had a particularly severe impact in emerging and frontier markets where there is limited healthcare and where it is difficult to distribute both personal protective equipment and vaccines. While the COVID-19 response in Afghanistan was already worrisome before the Taliban takeover, it has now been made substantially worse as nearly one in four hospitals treating the illness have been shuttered since the Taliban came into power, per the World Health Organization.
COVID-19 immunizations fell 80 percent in the days following the Taliban takeover, per UNICEF. In addition, less than 5 percent of Afghanistan’s population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. These realities, coupled with the loss of medical professionals who are fleeing the country, are severely limiting the ability of Afghanistan to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Afghanistan is one of only two countries in the world where polio remains endemic. Notably, however, there was only one case of wild poliovirus reported this year in Afghanistan versus 56 in 2020. Yet these gains risk being undone if the country’s healthcare infrastructure falls apart, according to the United Nations. With the few functioning healthcare facilities remaining in the country focusing on COVID-19, there is a high risk of polio making a resurgence.
When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s, they allowed foreign health workers and organizations to come into the country as a part of a campaign to eradicate polio. However, in 2018, it banned vaccinators from going to people’s homes and from holding mass vaccinations in public buildings, including mosques.
A tough road ahead
There is much uncertainty for the Afghan people as they enter this new phase for their country. In September, more than $1 billion was pledged in aid to Afghanistan as the United Nations called for $606 million to be raised. Hopefully this aid will allow for the Afghan healthcare system to provide women’s health services and tackle both COVID-19 and polio.