What we know about the Taliban and Covid-19

A post on Facebook claims that the Taliban survived the pandemic with “no vaccines, social distancing, PCR testing, masks” and were still able “to then recapture an entire country with no mass deaths amongst their population during a global pandemic”.

It’s true that the Taliban did regain control of Afghanistan during the pandemic, but there’s no evidence that Covid-19 didn’t affect the group.

This Facebook post ignores the fact that there are some areas of Afghanistan the group have controlled since before the pandemic began, and in those areas, the Taliban reportedly claimed it was distributing hand sanitiser, conducting door-to-door temperature checks and enforced a two week quarantine period on travellers from Iran. Reportedly several members of its leadership, based abroad in Qatar, became ill with the disease.

There have been over 150,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Afghanistan

We don’t have figures on how many Taliban members have been vaccinated against, caught or died from Covid-19. But we do know what is happening in Afghanistan more widely.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Afghanistan has had a total 153,736 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and over 7,000 deaths, as of 8 September 2021. There’s no reason to think that members of the Taliban would not have been among those affected by the disease.

Mask use and social distancing

The Taliban regained control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in mid-August. A number of photographs taken since then show some Taliban members wearing masks.

As for the country as a whole though, it seems that mask-wearing and social distancing were not commonly observed. The Foreign Office’s travel advice for Afghanistan says: “WHO warns that widespread complacency and failure to follow public health advice is creating grave risks in the community with people generally not observing physical distancing or mask-wearing protocols.”

The Taliban and the vaccine

The question of the Taliban’s attitude to the Covid-19 vaccine is more complicated. An article for the Middle East Institute, a US think tank, said: “The Taliban’s acceptance of the Covid-19 vaccine is a departure from its usual position against immunization programs.”

It’s certainly the case that the Taliban has prevented efforts to vaccinate against polio over the years. Reuters reported in 2019 that the Taliban had banned the World Health Organisation from vaccinating against polio in areas it controlled before later reversing that decision.

The Middle East Institute’s article goes on to say that “in the case of Covid-19, the Taliban has responded in an unprecedented manner by facilitating public health workshops and giving permission to healthcare workers to administer the vaccine in areas under its control”.

However, we also found one report from inside the country claiming the Taliban has banned Covid-19 vaccinations in one region.

And UNICEF has reported that in the first week since the August takeover, Covid-19 vaccinations dropped by 80%. A spokesperson told Reuters: “The drop is understandable, as in situations of chaos, conflict and emergency, people will prioritize their safety and security first”.

Almost two million doses of the vaccine have been administered in the country as a whole, which has a population of around 40 million.

There are PCR testing facilities in the country

As for PCR testing, there are facilities which have been conducting PCR tests in Afghanistan. We don’t know whether these have been used by the Taliban, since they took over the main cities in August.

Before most flights from the country were suspended, any travellers leaving with Emirates airline (for example) had to show evidence of an “official printed certificate” negative PCR test.

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