New COVID surge ravages Afghanistan's crumbling healthcare system

KABUL (AP) -- Afghanistan's only five hospitals still offer COVID-19 treatment. 33 other hospitals have been closed in recent months due to a lack of heat, doctors, and medicines. The economic crisis in Afghanistan is being exacerbated by an increase in coronavirus-related cases.

New COVID surge ravages Afghanistan's crumbling healthcare system

KABUL (AP) -- Afghanistan's only five hospitals still offer COVID-19 treatment. 33 other hospitals have been closed in recent months due to a lack of heat, doctors, and medicines. The economic crisis in Afghanistan is being exacerbated by an increase in coronavirus-related cases.

Kabul's COVID-19 hospital is the only one. Staff can only heat the building at night due to a lack of fuel. Winter temperatures are below freezing in Kabul. Patients are wrapped in heavy blankets. The hospital's director, Dr. Mohammed Gul Liwal said that patients need oxygen and medicine supplies.

It is known as the Afghan Japan Communicable disease Hospital and has 100 beds. As the virus spreads, almost all of the COVID-19 wards are full. The hospital was receiving one to two coronavirus patients per day before January. Liwal stated that in the last two weeks, between 10 and 12 new patients were admitted each day.

Liwal said that the situation was worsening every day, in a cold conference room. Since the Taliban takeover almost six months ago, hospital employees have received only one month's salary, in December.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 in August following the chaotic end to the 20-year U.S.-led intervention. After Afghanistan lost nearly $10 billion in assets overseas, Afghanistan's economy collapsed and financial assistance to the government was stopped.

The humanitarian crisis in the country has been exacerbated by the collapse of the health system. A little over 90% of the country's population is below the poverty line, with many families unable to afford food. This means that at least one million children are in danger of starvation.

Liwal stated that the omicron variant of the virus is hitting Afghanistan hard. However, he admitted it was just an assumption because Afghanistan is still waiting on kits to test for the variant. According to Dr. Javid Hazhir, spokesperson for the Public Health Ministry, they were expected to arrive by the end of February. According to the World Health Organization, Afghanistan will receive the kits by February 31st.

According to the organization, 8,496 samples were tested by Afghan public laboratories between January 30 and February 5. Nearly half of them were positive for COVID-19. Those numbers translate into a 47. The WHO reported a 47.4% positive rate. These low numbers are thought to be due to extreme under-reporting, as large-scale testing is not possible.

The Taliban government is now trying to get vaccines into a skeptical population, which often views them as dangerous.

Hazhir stated that the administration had 3.2 million doses of vaccine in stock and launched a campaign through mosques. Clerics are also being used to promote vaccination. Liwal stated that only 27% of Afghanistan’s 38 million population have been vaccinated with single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccines. It is almost impossible to get Afghans to adhere even the most basic safety protocols like social distancing and mask wearing. COVID-19 is a top fear for many people who are struggling to feed their families. Although the Public Health Ministry has launched awareness campaigns on masks and social ditancing, most people don't pay attention.

Even though signs warned that mask wearing was mandatory in the Afghan Japan Hospital, many people were not wearing masks in the dimly lit hallways. For protection, doctors and nurses wore only surgical masks or gowns in the intensive care unit. Half of the patients were on ventilators.

Dr. Naeemullah is the head of the unit and said that he requires more ventilators. He also needs doctors who are trained in using ventilators. Although he is often underpaid and overworked, he feels obligated to serve his patients. Liwal stated that several Afghan doctors have fled Afghanistan.

The hospital has 200 employees who work every day, despite not being paid for months.

A U.S.-based charity associated with Johns Hopkins University provided funding for two months in December. This gave hospital staff their December salary, and promised another paycheck in January. Liwal said that the WHO and the public health ministry are currently in talks to take over the running of the hospital until June.

Liwal stated that other Kabul hospitals were once able to accept some patients but no longer have the funds. He said that 33 COVID-19-treatment facilities across the country have been closed due to a lack in funds and staff departures.

Dr. FaridullahQazizada was the only microbiologist at Afghanistan's Japan Hospital. He earned less than $1,000 per month before the Taliban came to power. According to him, he has only received one month's salary from August. He claims that his equipment and facilities are not adequate.

He said, "The entire health system has been destroyed."

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