Describing a nightmare unfolding in Afghanistan, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Thursday that the world is in a race against time to help the Afghan people and stressed that freezing temperatures and frozen assets are a lethal combination for the Afghan people.

Speaking to reporters in New York City, Guterres said, two days after launching the largest humanitarian appeal ever for a single country, more than half of the Afghans now depend on life-saving assistance, adding that without a more concerted effort from the international community, virtually every man, woman and child in the country could face acute poverty amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UN chief said a properly funded aid operation in Afghanistan has the capacity to achieve amazing results, with humanitarians reaching some 18 million people across the country last year.

But, he said, humanitarian operations desperately need more money and more flexibility. Rules and conditions that prevent money from being used to save lives and the economy must be suspended in this emergency situation. International funding should be allowed to pay the salaries of public-sector workers, and to help Afghan institutions deliver healthcare, education and other vital services, said Guterres.

The Secretary-General said support for essential state functions will give Afghans hope for the future and reason to stay in their country and welcomed the Security Council’s adoption of a humanitarian exception to the United Nations sanctions regime for Afghanistan.

He said the UN is taking steps to inject cash into the economy through creative authorized arrangements, but this was just a drop in the bucket. Guterres highlighted the need to jump-start the Afghan banking system to avoid economic collapse and to enable humanitarian operations.

He said, the United Nations in Afghanistan stands ready to work with member states and others to put in place accountable systems that will enable funds to reach the Afghan people most in need, and to ensure that these funds are not diverted.

While appealing for international support for the Afghan people, the UN chief made an equally urgent plea to the Taliban leadership to recognize and protect the fundamental human rights, and in particular the rights of women and girls. Across Afghanistan, women and girls are missing from offices and classrooms. A generation of girls is seeing its hopes and dreams shattered. Women scientists, lawyers and teachers are locked out wasting skills and talents that will benefit the entire country and, indeed, the world. No country can thrive while denying the rights of half of its population,” he said.

Guterres noted that, moving forward, it is also essential that every effort is made to build inclusive government institutions in which all Afghans feel represented and that promote security and fight terrorism.

The Secretary-General said, without creative, flexible and constructive engagement by the international community, Afghanistan’s economic situation will only worsen; despair and extremism will grow. We need to act now to prevent economic and social collapse and find ways to prevent further suffering for millions of Afghans