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Get sick or go hungry: Afghan nomads battle against COVID-19

Since COVID-19 hit Afghanistan in mid-March, it has posed a dreadful dilemma for the Kuchis (Afghan nomads): get sick or go hungry. The Kuchis normally make a living by herding sheep, goats and camels around the country – but with a number of provinces under lockdown, that lifestyle has become very difficult to maintain.

For most people, the lockdown measures greatly reduce their exposure to the virus. But for the Kuchis, they pose the danger of blocking their usual trade of livestock and dairy products – and without trade, they have no income and face a shortage of food.

The Kuchis are among the poorest and most marginalized groups in Afghanistan. For centuries, they have led a nomadic life. But decades of conflict, drought and the degradation of grazing areas have damaged their livelihoods. Today, more than a third of the 1.5 million Kuchis face food insecurity.

“The closure of the markets and shops due to the imposed lockdown have heavily impacted the Kuchi community,” says Candra Samekto, IFAD's Country Director for Afghanistan. “Kuchis cannot not sell their livestock and dairy products, and when they manage to sell some animals locally, it is at a much lower price than usual.” For example, in the Nangarhar and Logar areas, Kuchis are getting 40 per cent less per lamb compared to before the pandemic.

Since COVID-19 struck, IFAD and the Government of Afghanistan have been helping Kuchis through the ongoing Community, Livestock and Agriculture Project (CLAP). Its activities targeting Kuchis are implemented by the Dutch Committee for Afghanistan (DCA).

“First of all, it was crucial to inform the Kuchis of the virus and explain how they can protect [themselves],” says Candra. “But they are not easy to reach; they live in remote areas where digital infrastructures are weak, and the vast majority of them are illiterate.”

Since 2015, CLAP has established 52 veterinary field units and trained 100 Kuchis to become para-veterinarians and basic veterinarian workers. More than 400 para-veterinarians have also received refresher training. They now provide vaccinations, deworming and medical treatment for the Kuchis’ small ruminants in seven provinces of the country. Animal health has improved, and mortality rates have dropped from 15 to 6.2 per cent. This has led to a 50 per cent increase in milk production and a 24 per cent increase in herders’ incomes.

With the advent of COVID-19, IFAD and its partners decided to build on this solid network of professionals in mounting a response. About 160 of these field unit staff were trained in awareness campaigns and then alerted Kuchi communities about the virus and informed them of protection measures, including through brochures with pictures so that they could be readily understood.

In addition, hygiene and health safety kits including masks and soaps were distributed to 48,000 households.

“The soap and mask have helped us prevent the spread of the disease,” says Mir Baaz, a Kuchi herder. “How would we have got information on the disease? We don’t have TVs, we don’t even have power.”

Over the years, CLAP had brought about other improvements that turned out to be useful when the pandemic started. In particular, herders had been able to shift their milk production to products such as gurrot, a soft cheese, and ghee, a clarified butter that keeps for long periods of time and therefore can be kept for sale later at a higher price. Herders had also been trained in milk processing, and had received churning and filtration machines and drying boxes. This has enabled them to prepare dried dairy products that can fetch double the price compared to milk. With the lockdowns in full swing, CLAP has been helping the Kuchis ramp up their production of these shelf-stable products, to be sold when more markets reopen.

Despite the resilience the project has been able to build, Kuchis will nonetheless need more support in the immediate future as the virus continues spreading in the country.

The recent reopening of the main markets may offer some relief. However, food prices have also gone up significantly in the last months. The price of wheat flour increased by 18 per cent between March and June, while the costs of pulses, sugar and rice increased by 22 per cent to as much as 37 per cent.

Without assistance, the Kuchis might be forced to take actions that will set back their development. “One concern is that Kuchis sell their productive assets and livestock to cope now and cannot recover after the pandemic,” explains Candra. “We are exploring additional measures to help them and we need funding.”

The Kuchis are not alone. Millions of small-scale farmers and livestock keepers around the world are being impacted by the lockdown measures. This past April, IFAD launched an urgent appeal for funding to help the most vulnerable people through its Rural Poor Stimulus Facility. This facility helps rural communities continue growing and selling food despite the pandemic, and in particular ensures access to inputs, information, markets and liquidity, so that poor people across the world do not have to face a choice between getting sick or going hungry.

Learn more about IFAD’s work in Afghanistan.