Only five hospitals in Afghanistan still offer COVID-19 treatment, with 33 others having been forced to close in recent months for lack of doctors, medicines and even heating.
This comes as the economically devastated nation is hit by a steep rise in the number of reported coronavirus cases.
At Kabul’s only hospital offering COVID-19 treatment, staff can heat the building only at night because of lack of fuel, even as winter temperatures drop below freezing point during the day. Patients are bundled under heavy blankets.
Its director, Dr Mohammed Gul Liwal, said they lack everything from oxygen to medicine supplies.
The facility, called the Afghan Japan Communicable Disease Hospital, has 100 beds. The COVID-19 ward is almost always full as the virus rages. Before late January, the hospital was getting one or two new coronavirus patients a day. In the past two weeks, 10 to 12 new patients have been admitted daily, Liwal said.
“The situation is worsening day by day,” said Liwal, speaking inside a chilly conference room.
Since the Taliban takeover of the country six months ago, hospital employees have received only one month’s salary – in December.
The health system’s collapse has only worsened the humanitarian crisis in the country. Roughly 90 percent of the population has fallen below the poverty level, and with families barely able to afford food, at least a million children are threatened with starvation.
The Omicron coronavirus variant is likely hitting Afghanistan hard, Liwal said, but he admits it is just a guess because the country is still waiting for kits that test specifically for the variant.
They were supposed to arrive before the end of last month, said Public Health Ministry spokesman Javid Hazhir. The World Health Organization (WHO) now says Afghanistan will get the kits by the end of February.
WHO says that between January 30 and February 5, public laboratories in Afghanistan tested 8,496 samples, of which nearly half were positive for COVID-19. Those numbers translate into a 47.4 percent positivity rate, the world health body said.
WHO recorded more than 7,400 deaths and close to 167,000 infections since the start of the pandemic almost two years ago. In the absence of large-scale testing, these relatively low figures are believed to be a result of extreme under-reporting.
With 3.2 million vaccine doses in stock, Hazhir said the administration has launched a campaign through mosques, spiritual leaders and mobile vaccine clinics to get more people vaccinated. Currently, barely 27 percent of Afghanistan’s 38 million people have been vaccinated, most of them with the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine.