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Action Against Hunger is strongly concerned about the hunger threat, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, to vulnerable populations living in countries already weakened by conflicts, climate change and poverty. As the region’s health crisis is quickly escalating with more than 30 000 confirmed cases in Afghanistan and 206 512 cases recorded in Pakistan, the humanitarian aid organisation calls for immediate efforts to assist and protect the population and to encourage funding opportunities for the NGOs working in the field.
Given the fast-changing situation, Action Against Hunger is calling on donors, global and national policy-makers to introduce appropriate means and long-term strategies in the fight against the pandemic. For the organisation’s missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the number of new cases is escalating, the time has come not only to sound the alarm in support of the local communities but to act as the countries are easing or even totally lifting the lockdown measures, exposing its population to unavoidable health risks.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a long-lasting crisis which needs a multi-layer and flexible response from donors and policy-makers”, said Jennifer Ankrom, Country Director of Action Against Hunger in Pakistan. “As lockdowns are ending and social distancing becomes sporadic, we need clear policies considering economic and health consequences. The pandemic situation in Pakistan is similar to what was happening in Europe back in March”.
In light of the latest estimates on potential death toll due to COVID-19, ending confinement measures and abandoning the application of social distancing during such a critical period seems dangerous. Action Against Hunger hopes to draw particular attention to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 in the region, the lack of testing facilities and means to protect the most vulnerable populations.
“In Afghanistan, even though the lockdown measures were lifted, we observed a decrease in the number of people seeking help in our health centres, mainly due to the fear of gatherings or treatment. As this tendency will have serious impacts and long-term consequences, we will need to move from a short-sided emergency response approach to new ways of working”, said Anaïs Hely-Joly, Country Director of Action Against Hunger in Afghanistan.
Due to border closures and lockdown measures, the unusually high food prices in the region further exacerbate the access to food for vulnerable households already living below the poverty line. Only in Pakistan, food commodity prices of wheat and wheat flour are increasing by 4.9% and 8.4%. Afghanistan has also witnessed a sharp upward spike in prices by about 10-20 % compared to the same period last year which still continue to increase, deteriorating purchasing power of casual labor and farmers. Furthermore, there is a lack of testing capacities in Afghanistan and the challenges to get tested in Pakistan as the main testing sites are located in big cities. This will put millions of people at risk, especially in rural areas.
“Protecting lives is our utmost priority, thus medical aid will help thousands to overcome the pandemic’s peak. However, we have to put in place sustainable food security and development programs in order to stay several steps ahead”, added Ms. Hely-Joly.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and despite the lockdown measures, nearly 68,876 severely malnourished children have received treatment. Action Against Hunger works in Sindh, second largest food-producing province in the country where 46% of children are stunted and 23% suffer from wasting*. The out-patient therapeutic sites and stabilization centres are still operating in eight districts of the region, delivering life-saving activities every day. However, local authorities and civil society organisations must act together in addressing the widespread confusion among the population, tired and disbelieved after months of lockdown, with clear and consistent messaging.
In Afghanistan, where nearly 10 million people are acutely food insecure**, Action Against Hunger maintains its health and nutrition programs. Recent political context is seen by many as glimmer of hope, however continued violence is now seen as a threat not only to the immediate safety of communities, but also to overall public health as it may hinder the diseases detection and the delivery of life-saving medical care. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, nearly 9,469 malnourished children have received treatment. The organisation works with communities in 4 provinces to spread information on COVID-19 prevention through community awareness, handwashing promotion sessions, radio messages, and community dialogues with the implication of Mullahs to make sure to spread the message and encourage communities to go back to the health facilities.