COVID-19: Outlook and Approaches

The core responsibility of those who deal in public policy – elected officials, administrators, policy analysts, [and academics] – is not simply to discover as objectively as possible what people want for themselves and then to determine and implement the best means of satisfying these wants. It is also to provide the public with alternative visions of what is desirable and possible, to stimulate deliberation about them, provoke a reexamination of premises and values, and thus to broaden the range of potential responses and deepen society’s understanding of itself.

Robert Reich, The Power of Public Ideas (1988; 3-4)

Situation Analysis

The impacts of COVID-19 pandemic are particularly pronounced in countries affected by ongoing conflict, weak governance and government, and ill-equipped and ill-prepared public sectors including health services. Combined with widespread poverty, weak infrastructure, internal displacement and return of substantial numbers of migrants from neighboring Iran and Pakistan, these conditions place Afghanistan among the most vulnerable countries facing the threat and impact of COVID-19.

As with other pandemics, COVID-19 disproportionately and adversely impacts the most vulnerable and exacerbates pre-existing inequalities. The success of interventions to address the pandemic will depend on the quality of the evidence informing the responses and the extent to which the data represent differences in gender, age and vulnerability.[1]

As of 2017, Afghanistan had an estimated 55% of its population living below the poverty line.[2] The consequences of COVID-19 will be severe on access to basic services, rights and the overall wellbeing of citizens. For many, already scarce wage-earning opportunities have been further reduced by containment measures to restrict the spread of the virus, exacerbating the vulnerability of households which rely on daily wages for subsistence, and thus increasing risks of food insecurity for the most vulnerable.

Community solidarity and support mechanisms such as food distribution through mosques, and external support through humanitarian assistance and development aid, are also likely to continue to be adversely affected by movement restrictions, containment measures, and NGOs’ risk of exposure to the virus. The most exposed to the virus (the elderly and the chronically ill) and dependents (children and the disabled) are particularly vulnerable to any weakening of existing coping and solidarity mechanisms.

In an already dire social and economic situation the pandemic can increase barriers to protecting children’s rights with repercussions for malnutrition, neglect, child labor, and heightened risks of exploitation, violence and abuse of children.

COVID-19 and responses to address it will continue to affect all aspects of social and economic life. In particular, pre-existing gender inequalities and discriminatory social norms are likely to be exacerbated as consequences of the pandemic, resulting in inequitable sharing of the disease burden.[3] The impacts of COVID-19 are particularly pronounced for women, the overwhelming majority of whom is subject to strict social norms that commonly translate into forced confinement, domestic physical and sexual violence, limited movement outside the home, and thus limited access to basic services for physical and mental health.[4]

Access to protection services for survivors of gender-based violence are expected to have been adversely affected by emergency measures to contain the spread of COVID-19.[5] In addition, due to the already limited health resources being diverted to fight the pandemic, fewer resources are likely to be available for pre- and post-natal health care and family planning.

COVID-19 and Research and Capacity Development Needs

The common threat posed to all by COVID-19 makes the need for the definition of a common good all the more pressing. Measures to strengthen solidarity, reduce inequalities and political infighting, and support good governance are more urgent than ever.

While emergency measures are crucial to respond to immediate threats posed to public health and safety, its medium and long-term consequences call for sustained attention across all sectors. A whole system approach for Afghanistan in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic calls for up-to-date evidence, skills, and new forms of engagement among multiple actors.

Specifically, evidence needs to be collected on how the conflict and the current political stalemate exacerbate citizens’ conditions in the pandemic. Community solidarity and coping mechanisms within households and communities need to be better understood and supported to protect the most vulnerable from effects of the virus, with dedicated attention to women, the elderly, children, the chronically ill and the disabled.

The need for immediate health, security and humanitarian responses to the pandemic should not override priorities set out under the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework (ANPDF), Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), various National Priority Programs (NPPs), and commitments made by the Afghan government under international treaties and conventions such as United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325)and subsequent resolutions on Women, Peace and Security.

Alongside efforts to secure peace in Afghanistan, albeit on very fragile grounds, the government and citizens must remain committed to the National Action Plan for the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 and related resolutions (NAP 1325) to support the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda through women’s participation in national processes on peace, conflict resolution, and dealing with COVID-19 while preventing violence against women, protecting women’s rights, and addressing the specific needs of girls and women in relief and recovery efforts.[6]

Civil society, broadly defined to include all non-violent, non-government actors, needs to be equipped with specific skills for leading efforts to address the specific needs for dealing with the pandemic. Civil society must use innovative methods such as virtual public forums, communiqués and petitions to coordinate advocacy for policy and action to address the special needs of the most vulnerable under pandemic conditions.

APPRO’s Response to COVID-19

The unprecedented situation created by the pandemic calls for rethinking approaches to development and humanitarian work. In immediate terms, COVID-19 has significant consequences and implications for the functioning of civil society organizations, raising unprecedented and new short-term operational, technical, financial, and safety challenges.

Adaptive internal measures are essential to protect the health and wellbeing of organizational personnel and immediate and indirect beneficiaries. At the same time, external adjustments are needed for a re-orientation of activities and strategies to meet the new needs of the new operating environment.

Internal Implications

Organizational

Internal organizational measures include specific procedures to ensure maximum safety and security of personnel and those that come into contact with personnel from APPRO and its affiliated organizations.

These procedures include:

  1. Facilitating distance working for all administrative, research and training staff to minimize risks associated with exposure to contamination in the work environment and ensuring that all personnel have equal access to online working tools.
  2. Where coming to the office is necessary, e.g., security, access to files and systems on the office premises, staff members are screened for symptoms on arrival and departure. While onsite, all staff will maintain physical distancing of at least two meters or working in separate office spaces as much as possible.
  3. Staff members infected by the virus will receive support from APPRO to ensure their health needs are met. This includes special provisions to secure expert medical assistance, medicines, and other treatment-related needs.

All procedures are reviewed and revised as necessary on a monthly basis to ensure their sufficiency and adequacy for addressing the specific needs of employees during the pandemic.

Operational

As of April 15, 2020, APPRO has started a review process that entails:

  1. A complete assessment of risks associated with APPRO’s activities in the context of COVID-19. This assessment will be updated on a monthly basis and includes identification of physical and psychological risks associated with activities in each area of work and specific vulnerabilities that emerge from the novel conditions of the pandemic.
  2. Adoption of research design, methods and protocols suited to pandemic conditions including provisions for site and participant selection, data collection methods and tools, data analysis techniques, and research ethics.
  3. Adoption of training techniques suited to the pandemic environment, particularly regarding instructor/participant interfaces during class sessions, mentoring, and submission of assignments.
  4. Revision of reporting mechanisms and means of verification.

All new approaches and operational procedures are adopted and implemented on a trial basis, subject to regular monitoring and assessment to establish what works best and what does not.

Approach to Research

Research protocols and methodologies have been revised to be responsive to pandemic conditions and minimize risks for research participants and researchers. This includes the development and trial of innovative methodologies for site and participant selection, primary data collection methods and tools, and data analysis techniques.

As much as possible, virtual media and telecommunications technologies will be prioritized to engage persons of interest during data collection for research, monitoring and evaluations. Methodologies for data collection will emphasize the use of text and voice messaging, user-friendly questionnaires accessible on mobile devices, and mobile communication.

Onsite visits and in-person interviews will only be carried out if absolutely necessary and under strict conditions of safety for the researchers and those they engage with. Case-by-case assessments will be carried out to ensure the availability of personal protective equipment and possibilities for social distancing.

Constraints will arise during data collection through virtual means including confidentiality issues arising from lack of control over the environment of the interview and the effectiveness of remote and social media tools. Additional efforts will be made to ensure the accuracy of the data collected by, for example, increasing the number of remote interviews.

To limit risks associated with heightened vulnerability of certain groups and individuals under the pandemic, additional focus will be placed on trauma-informed research methodologies that take into account the effects of traumatic experiences on the responses and behavior of interlocutors.

Approach to Training

Risks of contamination compromise the delivery of in-class training and require the development of innovative approaches to training and capacity building that limit physical contact while ensuring dialogue and interaction among the participants and between the participants and the trainers are maintained.

Where training participants all have access to digital technologies and internet-based tools, virtual interfaces and interactive technologies and learning tools such as Zoom will be utilized. Participants will be prepared beforehand on how to use the systems used for training, and trial sessions will be carried out to mitigate risks associated with technical difficulties.

In cases where access to relevant technologies is unequal among participants, or where some face specific constraints due to lack of availability of personal space at home to participate remotely in trainings, APPRO will provide access to its in-office training facilities, ensuring participants and staff are equipped with personal protective equipment. The participants will also be requested to adhere to sanitary protocols such as frequent hand washing and maintaining social distance.

External Implications

APPRO’s approach will remain focused on evidence-based policy making, using empirical findings to inform the decision-making process at multiple levels.

In relation to COVID-19, APPRO’s will examine whether and how interventions to deal with the spread of the pandemic affect the pre-existing conditions. Specifically, the extent to which:

  • Structural inequalities and inequities are affected by COVID-19 and the responses to overcome the pandemic. Specific attention will be paid to the effects of the pandemic on gender relations.
  • Vulnerable segments of the population are adapting to cope with pandemic conditions. This will include assessing community resilience and solidarity mechanisms.
  • The intersection of the pandemic with ongoing conflict, humanitarian crisis, and economic and environmental shocks affect health and safety, food security, livelihoods, and environmental security.
  • Pandemic response measures affect:
    1. Governance, with a focus on state-civil society relations
    2. Labor market and the implications for job creation
    3. Development and humanitarian aid programming, and
    4. Corruption / anticorruption in all forms of transaction at multiple levels.

APPRO will remain attentive to how the Government of Afghanistan, as well as national and international development and humanitarian aid actors, protect the basic rights of citizens and uphold the principles of good governance in their programming and approach.

In the context of the current peace process, APPRO’s focus remains on the need for an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue that takes into account the rights and concerns of the most vulnerable, women and men, minorities, and youth.

APPRO will maintain its focus on the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda by continuing to monitor whether and how Afghanistan’s NAP 1325 informs pandemic response, supporting advocacy efforts with empirical evidence to ensure that gender considerations are integrated into the policy process to address the immediate needs while safeguarding longer term development and humanitarian objectives.

More generally, APPRO will remain committed to its mission to address existing and pressing knowledge gaps in the policy making process as a means to inform learning of researchers, academics, and decision and policy makers at all levels.

Support to Partners and Affiliated Organizations

APPRO acts as the Secretariat for National Advocacy Committee for Public Policy (NAC-PP), founding organization for Center for Good Governance, Gender, Research, Administration, and Development Studies (GRAD), and founding organization for APPRO-Europe. The following measures will be taken regarding these three affiliated entities.

NAC-PP

As the Secretariat of the National Advocacy Committee for Public Policy (NAC-PP), APPRO will continue to support advocacy efforts of NAC-PP, its subcommittees and provincial branches. In consultation with NAC-PP members, measures will include:

  • A full assessment of how the pandemic affects advocacy priorities in the short, medium and long-term.
  • A revision of advocacy strategies to incorporate advocacy methods based on innovative use of internet-based tools such as webinars, online campaigns, and online petitions.
  • Capacity building support to NAC-PP members on how to reach their intended audience and conduct effective internet-based advocacy.
  • Provision of an evidence-base on the short-term and longer-term impacts of the pandemic to inform advocacy efforts.

GRAD

Center for Good Governance, Gender, Research, Administration, and Development Studies (GRAD) will deliver all certified and cross-certified courses using e-learning tools. All course participants will be prepared beforehand on how to use the various learning technologies and mock training sessions will be carried out to ensure all participants are fully conversant with these technologies.

In training modules where in-class interaction is absolutely necessary, the participants will be divided into smaller groups to ensure strict observance of personal safety measures including the two-meter distance rule. Personal protective equipment and adequate sanitary provisions will be available for all in-class sessions.

Visiting instructors from international partner organizations will have the option of conducting training fully online, using online learning tools including pre-recorded lectures.

Course hours will be adapted to accommodate the new pandemic-related restrictions and mitigation measures, ensuring adequate communication between the instructors and the participants.

An anticipated challenge is the unequal ability of participants to have access to private space and time at home to adequately participate in course sessions. Instructors and course support staff will introduce flexibility in course design to address such cases on an ad hoc basis, in consultation with affected participants.

Course contents will be adapted to incorporate modules focused on emergency response and recovery. The course on Policy and Institutional Analysis, for instance, will include an additional module on policy planning in emergencies.

APPRO-Europe

All data collection methods for research, monitoring and evaluation will be subject to new protocols described for APPRO, above.

All training and other forms of activity requiring real time interface will be subject to restricted contact protocols described for GRAD, above.

[1]  Regarding gender differences, see: The Lancet (2020), The Gendered Dimensions of COVID-19, available from: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30823-0/fulltext

[2]  Central Statistics Office (CSO), “Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey 2016-2017”. Data available at: https://cso-of-afghanistan.shinyapps.io/ALCS_Dashboard/

[3]  GiHA Asia and Pacific (2020), The COVID-19 Outbreak and Gender: Key Advocacy Points from Asia and the Pacific, available from: https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.info/files/documents/files/giha_wg_advocacy_brief_covid_19_outbreak_and_gender.pdf

[4]  For an illustration of the consequences, see, for example, The New Humanitarian (2020), Briefing: Why women and children are at greatest risk as Ebola continues to spread in Congo, available from: https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2019/09/05/Congo-Ebola-epidemic-hits-women-children-hardest and CSIS (2020), The Impact of COVID-19 on Humanitarian Crises, available from: https://www.csis.org/analysis/impact-covid-19-humanitarian-crises

[5]  UN Women, “Gender Alert on COVID-19 in Afghanistan. Issue II: Ensuring Access to Services for Survivors of Violence Against Women and Girls.”  (April 30, 2020). Available from: https://www2.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20eseasia/docs/publications/2020/04/2nd%20issue%20gender%20alert%20on%20covid-19_300420.pdf?la=en&vs=4735

[6]  Afghanistan’s National Action Plan for the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 and Related Resolutions, available from: https://www.peacewomen.org/sites/default/files/NAP%20Afghanistan.pdf.  See also UN Women, “Gender Alert of Covid-19. Issue III: The impact of COVID-19 on the Implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.” (May 7, 2020). Available from:  https://www2.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20eseasia/docs/publications/2020/05/issue%20iii_gender%20alert_wps.pdf?la=en&vs=1343