A catastrophe is unfolding in Afghanistan, where a COVID-19 surge has overwhelmed a public already caught in the cross fire as government forces battle rapidly advancing Taliban militants.
Health officials say hospitals have run out of beds, oxygen, and medical workers. As a result, they have been forced to ration oxygen and turn away new patients.
On July 1, the Health Ministry said that more than one in three of the 5,506 tests carried out in the previous 24 hours was positive, pointing to an alarmingly high infection rate in the country of around 36 million.
Official figures showing around 120,000 confirmed cases and under 5,000 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began 16 months ago are thought to significantly underrepresent the problem, as millions of Afghans have little or no access to tests or medical treatment amid resurgent violence in a two-decade conflict.
Nematullah Abedi, from the Khinjan district of the northern Baghlan Province, says that everyone in his family of 15 has recently fallen ill with COVID-19.
“They got sick one after another, with fever, sore throat, pain, and extreme fatigue,” Abedi, 40, tells RFE/RL. “The situation is the same throughout Khinjan.”
Abedi took some of his family members to the hospital, but the ever-changing security situation meant no tests or medical treatment for the others. Many of Khinjan's villages changed hands repeatedly before the army recaptured the entire district from insurgents on June 25.
A New Wave Of Violence
Seemingly fueled by the Delta variant, a third wave of COVID-19 hit Afghanistan in late May. It came with the Taliban emboldened by the withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO troops and advancing in many parts of the country.
Fighting between Afghan security forces and the Taliban has forced many people from their homes, depriving patients of any chance of seeking treatment or even resting at home.
Officials say that at least 8,000 families in Baghlan have been displaced by fighting in the past three weeks. Many of them have moved to the provincial capital, Pul-e Khumri.
The local government says it has managed to provide shelter for just 1,000 families. The others are left stranded in the streets under the scorching summer heat in a city besieged by the Taliban.
“My daughter-in-law has been sick, she has a fever, but [instead of getting treatment] all of us had to flee when bullets started spraying,” says 70-year-old Amanullah, whose family of seven now shares a house in Pul-e Khumri with dozens of other displaced people.
Social distancing or following other health protocols is simply out of question for many.
“Now others are getting sick, too,” Amanullah says. “At my age, I don’t have much strength even without [COVID-19]. When you’re old or sick, you want to stay at home. But we’re having to deal with this misery of coronavirus, hunger, war. I just don’t know what to do.”
Inundated with COVID-19 patients, many hospitals are operating beyond their capacity and are turning away new patients, doctors in Pul-e Khumri, Herat, and Kabul tell RFE/RL.
Health authorities estimate that about 80 percent of those infected with the virus are getting treatment at home.
The government has closed schools, universities, and wedding venues to help prevent the further spread of the virus. But overcrowded bazaars remain open.
Doctors urge people to wear face masks and follow other preventive measures, but the government hasn’t made them mandatory. Most people ignore the recommendations.
Umedullah, a taxi driver in the northwestern city of Andkhoy, tells RFE/RL that most of his customers don’t wear face masks.
He says “people gather together and sit next to each other, despite some of them having [suspected] COVID-19 symptoms.”
Some people say they have no money to buy face masks and disinfectant gels. Others say they have “just given up.”
In Kabul, Herat, and other cities, many people complain about sudden price hikes and shortages of oxygen and medicines.
Relatives of COVID-19 patients often wait in line for many hours to fill up their cylinders at oxygen stations.
Some people say that a shortage of the more affordable oxygen at government-owned facilities -- about $5 for a refill -- has forced them to pay around $50 to fill up their cylinders elsewhere.
One Kabul resident told local media that he had to sell every household item he could to pay for oxygen for his sick relatives.
In Herat, Elyas Noori, a brother of a COVID-19 patient, says his family spent all their savings on his treatment.
“There is also a shortage of empty cylinders,” Noori says. “The government must control the prices; it shouldn’t allow [vendors] to raise prices however they want to.”
Asked by RFE/RL, Ebrahim Shinwari, head of the Drugs and Food Administration, says his agency has the situation under control.
“I urge people to get their receipts when they purchase medications, and if they think it’s overpriced, they should contact our agency,” Shinwari says.
Health authorities say they believe the third wave has now peaked in Afghanistan and expect the figures to trend downward in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, vaccination rates remain low in Afghanistan, with only 1 million doses administered so far.
By June 30, just half of 1 percent of the population had been fully vaccinated -- and most of those are health workers or security troops.
The U.S. government has pledged to deliver 3 million doses of the one-jab Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with shipments expected to be on the way by July 10. It is also providing oxygen and other medical supplies to help Afghanistan battle the latest outbreak.
RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.