Only five hospitals in Afghanistan still offer COVID-19 treatment, with 33 others forced to close in recent months over a lack of doctors and medicines and even the inability to access sufficient heating.
- Dr Mohammed Gul Liwal told the Associated Press doctors have received just one month’s salary since August
- Funding for Afghanistan’s health system has dried up since the Taliban took control of the country
- While reported case numbers are relatively low across Afghanistan, the real figure is believed to be much higher
The economically devastated nation is experiencing a steep rise in the number of reported COVID-19 cases.
At Kabul’s only COVID-19 treatment hospital, staff can only heat the building at night because of lack of fuel, even as winter temperatures drop below freezing.
Patients are bundled under heavy blankets.
Director Dr Mohammed Gul Liwal said the hospital needs everything, from oxygen to medical supplies.
The facility, called the Afghan Japan Communicable Disease Hospital, has 100 beds.
Its COVID-19 ward is almost always full as the virus rages.
Before late January, the hospital was getting one or two new COVID-19 patients a day.
In the past fortnight, 10 to 12 new patients have been admitted daily, Dr Liwal said.
“The situation is worsening day by day,” he told the Associated Press.
Afghanistan’s health care system — which survived for nearly two decades almost entirely on international donor funding — has been devastated since the Taliban returned to power.
Since the August 2021 takeover, hospital employees have received only one month’s salary.
The Afghan Japan hospital’s only microbiologist, Dr Faridullah Qazizada, earned less than $US1,000 a month before the Taliban took power.
He has received only one month’s salary since August, he said, and his equipment and facilities are barely adequate.
“The whole health system has been destroyed,” Dr Qazizada said.
Afghanistan’s economy crashed after nearly $US10 billion ($14 billion) in assets abroad were frozen and financial aid to the government was largely halted.
The health system collapse has only worsened the humanitarian crisis in the country.
Roughly 90 per cent of the population has fallen below the poverty level and, with families barely able to afford food, at least one million children are at risk of starvation.
The Omicron variant is hitting Afghanistan hard, Dr Liwal said, but he admitted it was just a guess because the country was still waiting for kits that test specifically for the variant.
As of Tuesday, the WHO recorded 7,442 deaths and close to 167,000 infections in Afghanistan since the start of the pandemic.
In the absence of large-scale testing, these relatively low figures are believed to be a result of extreme under-reporting.
Meanwhile, the new Taliban administration says it is trying to push vaccines on a sceptical population that often sees them as dangerous.
Currently, less than 27 per cent of Afghanistan’s 38 million people have been vaccinated, most with the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
Getting Afghans to follow even a minimum of safety protocols, like mask-wearing and social distancing, has been near impossible, Dr Liwal said.
The Public Health Ministry has run awareness campaigns about the value of masks and social distancing, but most people are not listening.
Even in the Afghan Japan hospital, where signs warn people that mask-wearing is mandatory, most people in the dimly lit halls were without masks.
In the intensive care unit, where half of the 10 patients in the ward were on ventilators, doctors and attendants wore only surgical masks and gowns for protection as they moved from bed to bed.
The head of the unit, Dr Naeemullah, said he needs more ventilators and, even more urgently, he needs doctors trained on using them.
Dr Liwal said several doctors have left Afghanistan and most of his hospital’s 200 employees come to work regularly, despite experiencing months without pay.
He said other Kabul hospitals used to be able to take some patients, but now no longer have the resources.
With a lack of funds and staff leaving, Dr Liwal said 33 facilities offering COVID-19 treatment nationwide have shut down.