Afghanistan has experienced decades of insecurity and conflict-related disasters, a situation that has been exacerbated by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). This paper uses the Income, Expenditure and Labor Force Survey (IE&LFS) 2019-20 to quantitatively analyze poverty and welfare loss in Afghanistan. This analysis therefore covers the period before August 2021, providing an important baseline for examining situations that deteriorate in subsequent years. It finds that rates of poverty and welfare loss increased early in the pandemic, particularly among poor households, potentially reflecting further impoverishment as well as processes of deprivation. While these rates are comparable across age groups, in absolute terms they represent approximately 4.7 million young adults living in poverty in 2019-20. Youth-headed households were disadvantaged due to a weaker asset base. Although they had more years of schooling and higher rates of wage employment and migration, both of which helped protect them from poverty, during COVID-19 they were more likely to experience a temporary layoff, reflecting the precariousness of youth employment.
Disasters, insecurity and a series of negative shocks and stressors associated with COVID-19 have contributed to the loss of well-being and, in some situations, have been amplified during the pandemic. Many households have reduced their spending and the quality or quantity of food in response to these shocks, especially during COVID-19. Food insecurity was a related consequence, accentuated during the pandemic, especially among youth-headed households. Other common responses during COVID-19 included an increase in work-related strategies, potentially replacing a decline in social capital within the community. Although the economic activity rate of women in general has been surprisingly low, there has been a slight increase in employment during COVID-19 among women in poor households and among women in households affected by disasters or in unsafe areas during COVID-19. This may indicate a potential narrowing of the gender gap in employment in crisis contexts, although this in itself is a sign of distress where women experiencing poverty may have no recourse but to engage in precarious work and bear an increased workload to meet household needs in times of distress.