Fact check: What we know about COVID-19 precautions, deaths in Afghanistan – USA TODAY

The claim: The Taliban have survived COVID-19 with no vaccines, social distancing, testing, masks or shutdowns

The Taliban have taken over the last holdout province in Afghanistan and announced a caretaker Cabinet to rule the country. Those developments come nearly a month after the Islamic fundamentalist group rapidly took control of Afghanistan.

On social media, some say that takeover is notable for more than just its speed.

“Can someone tell me how the Taliban survived the last 18 months with no vaccines, social distancing, PCR testing, masks, and shutting down businesses to then recapture an entire country with no mass deaths amongst their population during a global pandemic?” reads text in a Sept. 6 Facebook post from Ted Nugent, a singer-songwriter and conservative activist.

Nugent’s post accumulated more than 6,600 shares within one day. Similar claims have racked up tens of thousands of interactions on Facebook and Instagram over the past week, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.

More than a year and a half after the coronavirus pandemic began, the highly contagious delta variant continues to wreak havoc across the globe. But has Afghanistan really survived without vaccines, social distancing, testing and other COVID-19 mitigation measures?

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That’s not exactly what’s happened.

The Taliban have opposed public health guidance in the past, and it’s unclear to what extent the group is adhering to COVID-19 precautions on a day-to-day basis. But the Taliban have also encouraged face masks and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus, and the nation has hardly been spared. Thousands of Afghans have died due to COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and experts say that’s likely an undercount.

USA TODAY reached out to Nugent for comment.

Taliban Badri special force fighters take a position at the airport in Kabul on Aug. 31, 2021.

Taliban called for distancing, masking

The Facebook post’s suggestion that the Taliban eschewed ways to prevent COVID-19, such as social distancing and face masks, is misleading at best.

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard it – that somehow the Taliban were spared, as if they had some kind of magic potion that kept them healthy,” Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute, told USA TODAY.

In spring 2020, the Taliban started holding workshops aimed at teaching Afghans how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The group canceled public gatherings and asked people to wear masks and pray at home instead of mosques. It also locked down areas affected by COVID-19 and quarantined those suspected of having the virus.

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More recently, photos of the Taliban in Kabul show some fighters wearing face coverings. But many others do not.

“Kabul’s streets are always crowded, that’s not unusual,” Weinbaum said. “There’s very little use of masks.”

In July, the World Health Organization warned that “despite the new surge, widespread complacency and failure to follow public health advice in Afghanistan is creating grave risks in the community with people generally not observing physical distancing or mask-wearing protocols.”

PCR testing is available in Afghanistan, although it’s unclear how regularly Taliban members get tested. As of Sept. 4, a little more than 750,000 COVID-19 tests had been administered in Afghanistan, according to the WHO

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As for vaccines, only about 1% of Afghans have been fully inoculated against COVID-19.

The Taliban have opposed vaccination campaigns in the past. But in the spring, the group gave health care providers permission to administer the COVID-19 vaccine in areas under its control. China announced this week that it is providing $31 million worth of vaccines, food and other supplies to Afghanistan.

However, the United Nations has warned the Taliban’s takeover could further slow the country’s COVID-19 response due to a drop in vaccinations. In August, the group reportedly banned COVID-19 vaccines in Paktia province. 

Thousands of Afghans have died from COVID-19

The Facebook post understates the effect of COVID-19 in Afghanistan.

More than 7,100 Afghans have succumbed to the virus since the pandemic began, according to data from the World Health Organization through Sept. 9. There have been nearly 155,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Experts told USA TODAY it’s unclear exactly how many Taliban members have died due to COVID-19. But the group has not been unscathed by the virus.

Foreign Policy reported in June 2020 that supreme leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada had contracted the coronavirus, as well as several Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar. Vanda Felbab-Brown, director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors at the Brookings Institution, told USA TODAY in an email that COVID-19 “has caused deaths among older Taliban leaders.”

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“I am not sure what ‘mass deaths’ is meant to suggest – thousands or tens of thousands of rank-and-file Talibs dying?” Felbab-Brown said. “If they suffered such deaths, it didn’t prevent their victory in the summer.”

In a country with an estimated population of about 40 million people, 7,100 deaths may not sound like a lot. Worldwide, Afghanistan’s total deaths per capita land somewhere in the middle of the pack.

“The general impression has been that, whatever was the great fear that this was going to become a real hotbed of infection, that has not happened,” Weinbaum said.

That could be due to a number of different factors. 

About three-fourths of Afghans are estimated to live in rural areas, where social distancing may be easier than in crowded cities like Kabul. The Taliban, in particular, tended to operate in fairly isolated areas prior to their takeover of the country.

A doctor fills a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, July 11, 2021.

But that doesn’t mean Afghanistan has been spared from the pandemic. Weinbaum and other experts cautioned that available COVID-19 data may not accurately reflect the situation on the ground.

“In general, there are very few testing facilities. A lot of cases don’t get reported,” Weinbaum said. “In Afghanistan, any statistic is going to be questionable.”

And beyond a lack of health care infrastructure, there may be other reasons why the number of reported COVID-19 deaths in Afghanistan is relatively low.

“Many people never claimed that their family members were killed due to COVID, just so that other people will attend their funeral without any hesitation,” Sher Jan Ahmadzai, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, said in an email.

Our rating: Partly false

Based on our research, we rate PARTLY FALSE the claim that the Taliban have survived COVID-19 with no vaccines, social distancing, testing, masks or shutdowns. 

Early in the pandemic, the Taliban called for social distancing, face masks and quarantines to slow the spread of COVID-19. More recent evidence indicates adherence to public health guidance is lagging in Afghanistan. While the Taliban has opposed vaccination campaigns in the past, it has generally allowed health care providers to administer vaccines. Still, only 1% of the population has been vaccinated at this point.

And the virus has claimed lives. Several Taliban leaders have fallen ill with the virus since the pandemic began, although it’s unclear how many have died. Thousands of Afghans have died due to COVID-19, and experts say that’s likely an undercount.

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