For most of this year, the media coverage of Afghanistan has focused on the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops and the implications for the war-torn country’s future.
But as U.S. troops and their allies head for the exit after nearly 20 years of conflict, Afghanistan is facing a third wave of COVID-19 infections that threatens to overshadow the potential fallout of the international troop departure in a country still largely dependent on international aid.
On June 9, the Afghan Public Health Ministry said at least 51 people had died of the coronavirus in the past 24 hours. It also reported that 1,843 new cases were registered -- up from 1,724 new positive cases and 54 deaths reported on the previous day. Alarmingly, 37 percent of the 5,044 samples tested over 24 hours on June 8 and 9 turned out positive for COVID-19.
These figures indicate that despite limited testing the death toll and case numbers are rapidly rising. Reports and anecdotal evidence from around the country point to acute oxygen shortages and a much higher death toll than that reported by the authorities. A lack of vaccines, widespread reluctance to accept those available, and a struggling healthcare system make the current wave a major threat to public health. The only silver lining is that more than 70 percent of an estimated 35 million Afghans are under the age of 30.
"The country's oxygen production capacity is limited,” Acting Health Minister Wahid Majrooh warned recently. “Understand. Cooperate. Stay at home as much as possible,” he added. “Take the warnings and messages of the corona crisis seriously.” He added that compared to the previous waves the number of people visiting hospitals has increased up to 70 percent.
Taking It Seriously
Few Afghans are taking the threat of the deadly disease seriously. Abdul Fattah, 23, and his father were recently admitted to the COVID-19 hospital in the western city of Herat. Both required the help of oxygen concentrators to breathe. The doctors said that, like many patients, Fattah told them he had not taken the threat of COVID seriously before he fell ill.
Fereydoun Zadran, a physician who treats COVID-19 patients in Kabul, told Radio Free Afghanistan that the coronavirus pandemic in the country is worsening because people refuse to take it seriously.
"The first and best advice for people is to wear a mask,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Try to make the most of the mask. When eating out, do not eat anything at work or at the market.”
Zadran added that people should wash their hands with soap several times a day, observe the 2 meters physical distance rule, avoid crowded places, and stay at home as much as possible. “The third wave of the coronavirus outbreak in Afghanistan could spiral out of control if people do not observe the health measures,” he warned.
Last week, President Ashraf Ghani ruled out a compete lockdown because many Afghans depend on daily wages. But authorities have closed educational institutions, marriage halls, gyms, and swimming pools. There has been no mention of mosques, where many Afghans congregate for prayers five times a day.
“Unfortunately, the third wave of the corona plunged a number of major countries in the region and the world, including India, into crisis,” Ghani said in a televised address. “And our country is facing the threat of the third wave of coronavirus.”
He attempted to assuage concerns that the country's poor healthcare system will be unable to cope with the third wave of the pandemic. Ghani assured Afghans that his government is working to increase the capacity of hospitals, mitigate the damage caused by COVID-19 and try to return life to normal life.
They doctors are already warning of acute shortages. Abdullah Dawari, a doctor at the COVID-19 ward in the Afghan Japan Hospital in Kabul, told Radio Free Afghanistan that no hospital with COVID-19 has enough oxygen. "Ali Jinnah, Red Cross, and other private hospitals are lacking oxygen,” he said while naming the major hospitals in the Afghan capital. “They need oxygen in every possible way and by whatever means possible.”
Calls For Help
Kabul is scrambling for international help. The Foreign Affairs Ministry has called on neighboring countries for immediate assistance with medical equipment, including oxygen. Ministry spokesman Gran Hiwad told Radio Free Afghanistan that Foreign Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar on June 4 called on Afghan ambassadors in the region to seek medical assistance.
Afghanistan has already received more than a 1.5 million doses of the coronavirus vaccines from India, China, and the global COVAX vaccine distribution program. Kabul is expecting to receive another 700,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine this week. Most of the jabs have gone into the arms of the more than 300,000 Afghan soldiers.
In recent days, some international organizations have announced plans to assist Afghanistan with equipment and other facilities. The World Health Organization said on June 8 that it is assisting another Kabul-based hospital.
“With COVID19 cases on the rise, WHO Afghanistan has provided an additional PCR machine to the Afghan Japan Hospital to increase COVID19 capacity. Testing remains a crucial tool for detecting and containing COVID19,” the tweet added.
The third wave of COVID-19 in Afghanistan comes at a critical juncture for the country. In April, U.S. President Joe Biden announced an unconditional and complete U.S. troop withdrawal by September 11. The U.S. Central Command estimates half of the withdrawal is already complete, and it hopes to wrap up the entire process by July.
As the departure leaves behind a weak and vulnerable Afghan government, the Taliban has stepped up its attacks on Afghan forces across the country and has capture several districts in various provinces. Despite U.S. and European assurances, the withdrawal has also raised concerns about the future of military, development, and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, which will further complicate Kabul’s efforts to contain the pandemic.
Since the detection of the first Afghan coronavirus case in early February 2020, some 85,893 people have contracted the virus while 3,356 have died of COVID-19, according to official figures.