Coronavirus exposes hypocrisies of militant groups on health care



A volunteer wearing a hazmat suit and a facemask prepares before the start of a preventive campaign against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Kabul on March 18, 2020. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

KABUL -- The coronavirus pandemic raging across the world, in addition to upending the daily life of civilians and leaving leaders scrambling to contain the deadly virus, has also exposed the hypocritical stances that militant groups have toward public health.

As of Monday (March 30), the number of confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19 was nearly 750,000, with over 30,000 associated deaths.

From the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the "Islamic State" (IS) group scattered across the Middle East and beyond, militant groups have been forced by the deadly virus to advocate for better health and hygiene -- a sharp contrast to the decades of violence and propaganda these groups have waged upon healthcare systems across the world.

The Taliban in the past few weeks has been attempting to paint itself as a group that cares about public health amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak.


A photo released by the Taliban on March 27 showed the group's alleged 'outreach' efforts to help stem the coronavirus outbreak. [File]


Soldiers in face masks March 17 in Sukkur, Sindh Province, guard a road leading to a quarantine facility for Pakistanis returning from Iran via the Taftan border crossing. [Shahid Ali/AFP]

This 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.

"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.

Propaganda war

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.

The Taliban's request for global health organisations to help fight the disease is just propaganda, say 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.

IS 'hygiene'

The Afghan Taliban are not the only militants to suddenly express interest in public health.

IS 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]

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