Kabul, Afghanistan – When 55-year-old Khairullah from a village in Afghanistan’s northern Jawzjan province was invited to join a meeting after Friday prayers on March 27, he was not prepared for what he witnessed.
Despite the unusually cold spring weather, Khairullah, who asked for his name to be changed, and his neighbours were welcomed by Taliban fighters holding their AK-47s and dressed in complete medical PPE (personal protective equipment) for a workshop on the prevention of the coronavirus.
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“It’s been about a week since the Taliban has been conducting such awareness campaigns here. They are asking people to use masks and gloves, talking about washing hands with soap, those kinds of things,” Khairullah told Al Jazeera, in a phone call from his village in the Taliban-controlled Darzaab district.
“They have cancelled all public gatherings, weddings and have asked people to pray at home instead of the mosques,” he added.
While Afghanistan has fewer than 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus, there are worries of an outbreak of the deadly virus in a country already facing years of conflict, displacement and poverty.
“We were directed by our health commission to hold public awareness campaigns, which we have undertaken in areas we control. We are also distributing pamphlets with advice on prevention of coronavirus in these districts,” Qari Khalid Hijran, who described himself as the Taliban’s newly-appointed director of public health of the Baghlan province, told Al Jazeera.
Government welcomes move
As surreal as it was for many Afghans, the Taliban’s initiative was welcomed by the country’s Ministry of Public Health.
“We noticed photos circulating on social media that show the Taliban’s campaign, and regardless of their intention, we appreciate the cooperation from anyone or any group that supports the fight against coronavirus,” Wahidullah Mayar, adviser to the Ministry of Public Health, told Al Jazeera.
Visuals shared by Khairullah and the Taliban of the coronavirus workshops show men dressed in white medical gear and masks, holding disinfectant sprays as well as heavy weapons, as they gather around large posters of instructions on avoiding the coronavirus.
The Taliban flag and insignia were also visible in some of those photos.
The printed material, issued by the Taliban’s “General Commission for Public Health”, listed precautions that people should take, including regular prayers, eating “halal” as well as medical advice.
“We also provided villagers a list of vegetables that contain high amounts of vitamin C to boost immunity,” Hijran said.
While there are concerns over the Taliban’s “health commission” providing information that meets medical standards, Mayar said his ministry was also running simultaneous campaigns in all provinces.
“We provide healthcare services in all provinces through trained health workers and 26 partner NGOs, even in Taliban areas. So there are professional medical workers that Afghans can turn to,” he said.
Safe passage to health workers
The Taliban has also offered safe passage to health workers and international organisations working to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Afghanistan.
“We are willing to allow and support government health workers or NGOs who can help the villagers in our areas. All they have to do is ask for our permission before coming so we can assess them, and we will let them work here,” said Hijran, adding that they were “ready to accept any help for the sake of people”.
Only last year, the Taliban had banned operations by the World Health Organization and the Red Cross in areas it controlled, citing “suspicious activities”. It later partially lifted the Red Cross ban.
Many Afghans also hope that the Taliban takes this opportunity to act on a United Nations call for a ceasefire in all conflict zones, due to the pandemic.
“The Taliban mentioned that if there is a [COVID-19] positive case, it will impose a ceasefire in that region. I ask them on behalf of the ministry to call for a ceasefire in the whole country,” said Mayar. “Let us fight this disease together instead of fighting each other.”
However, despite its public service campaign, the Taliban continues to attack Afghan forces, often claiming civilian lives.
A recent peace deal signed with the United States to end the 18-year war amid hopes for negotiations with the Afghan government have done little to prevent those attacks.
“They coronavirus hasn’t affected the conflict much. There is still fighting in many areas, and unless the fighting stops, the doctors and health teams can’t openly work in these areas,” Khairullah said.
Taliban quarantines virus suspects
Khairullah added that resources in his village were thinly stretched amid the pandemic.
“There is only one health centre in our district with 10 beds and a few health workers. Medicine supplies are low and I heard that the Taliban has also requested government officials to bring more medicines,” he told Al Jazeera.
While the Taliban may not have stopped fighting, the group says it has taken the coronavirus threat seriously by moving its fighters from the battlefields for the COVID-19 campaign.
The group has enforced lockdowns in affected areas and even quarantined those suspected of having the virus, especially Afghan refugees returning from Iran, the worst-hit Middle East country.
“About two weeks ago, they quarantined two villagers who had returned from Iran. They were not allowed to leave their homes and were later tested,” said Khairullah.
In some northern provinces, the Taliban even detained returnees from Iran who had escaped government quarantine facilities.
About two million Afghan refugees live in Iran, with thousands among them being deported to the shared western border in Herat province, making it the epicentre of Afghanistan’s coronavirus outbreak.
Of the nearly 400 cases in Afghanistan, more than 200 are from Herat alone, with seven deaths so far.
Hijran confirmed to Al Jazeera that the Taliban was quarantining and even testing Afghan citizens.
“We have health centres in our areas… in Baghlan, we have two centres. We check returnees in these health centres and even if they test negative, we lock them in homes for 20 days,” he said, adding that the group had conducted 135 tests in Baghlan province so far.
Testing kits available
Hijran also said the Taliban had COVID-19 testing kits, a shortage of which has been a matter of concern for Afghan health workers and organisations.
Fewer tests have made it difficult for the Afghan government to address the magnitude of the pandemic.
“We were provided 950 kits for Baghlan province from the Taliban health commission,” Hijran said, without revealing who provided the kits to the group.
For civilians like Khairullah though, the Taliban’s health initiatives, limited as they might be, provided a much-needed assurance to the people amid the crisis.
“This virus threatens all of us, whether Taliban or civilians or government,” he said.