International 19/09/2021

No pandemic in Taliban Afghanistan

Hardly anyone has been vaccinated or tested for covid since the radicals came to power

4 min
Taliban sleep treated in Kabul's only hospital to whip up coronavirus patients

Special envoy to KabulZakia Noori is a health worker and kills time eating sunflower seeds sitting under the shade of a tree outside the Afghan-Japan Hospital in Kabul, waiting for someone to show up who wants to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. But there is no way, since the Taliban arrived in Kabul a little over a month ago, no one goes to the hospital to get vaccinated. "Before, we couldn't keep up, we used to vaccinate up to 500 people a day", she says. Now, if they're lucky, they immunise 25 or 30. And as she says, it is like that in all vaccination points in Kabul: "We health workers have a WhatsApp group and we are all the same: we are all sitting on our hands".

The Afghan-Japan Hospital in Kabul is the only public hospital in the Afghan capital that currently treats coronavirus patients. As the name suggests, it is a hospital that was built by Japan, and is currently run by a Dutch NGO, Health Net TPO. And it shows. The hospital has nothing to do with a conventional public hospital in Afghanistan. It is clean and tidy. Outside there are some booths for vaccinations and others for PCRs. The PCR booths are closed. Also for the same reason - because no one comes.

"I think people don't come because they don't feel safe to go out on the street or because they think there will be no doctors at the hospital to treat them", says the hospital's medical director, Dr. Tariq Akbari, justifying why the pandemic has suddenly disappeared by magic in the Afghan capital. Here, in fact, the coronavirus does not seem to exist.

Few people wear face masks, their use is not mandatory anywhere, and the Taliban have not passed any regulations to curb the spread of the virus. The previous Afghan government did recommend wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing, but never decreed a lockdown. In fact, that would be unfeasible in Afghanistan: most Afghans do not have a fixed salary, they make a living every day. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 7,183 people have died and less than two million have been immunised in a country with an estimated 30 million inhabitants.

Finally, someone comes to the hospital to get vaccinated. It is an ethnic Hazara family - one of the minorities that the Taliban persecuted the most in the past - made up of four people. They arrive at the hospital by car. One of them, Zamin Ali, 25, says he is getting vaccinated because he wants to go to Australia and that is a prerequisite to avoid quarantine on arrival. Another family member, Mohammad Asif, 43, is also getting vaccinated for the same reason: he and his wife plan to emigrate to Iran. Also in the car is his father-in-law, a skeletal old man with obvious breathing problems. He has coronavirus and also wants to be vaccinated.

"We can't vaccinate him if he is sick", says the health worker in a reproachful tone, before administering the corresponding dose to the rest of the family members. The Taliban, she says, have banned women from vaccinating men. "But since no Taliban sees me here in the hospital, I do as I please", she says as she determinedly injects the vaccine into one of the male family members. Currently, she says, they are administering doses of Astra Zeneca, but in the past they have also injected the Chinese, Indian and American Janssen vaccines. Once vaccinated, the family gets back into the car with the sick father-in-law. None of them is wearing a face mask.

Asaluddin Kazizada, one of the hospital patients, with his daughter

Dr. Akbari assures them that they have enough vaccinations and no shortage of medicines. At least for the time being. The World Bank used to finance the Afghan-Japan Hospital in Kabul, as well as most hospitals and clinics in the country, and now all those funds have been frozen since the Taliban came to power. So it is an unknown what will happen in the future. At the moment the immediate consequence is that hospital staff have not been paid for two months. "We don't know how long we can go on like this. You can't force people to work if nobody pays them", he argues.

They also have another problem: they lack oxygen. "We have a production plant, but it doesn't cover all our needs. Besides, it broke down a few days ago, I went to the Ministry of Health to ask them to fix it and the Taliban didn't give me any solution", complains the doctor, who says that in the end he paid for the repair with money from his own pocket.

The hospital's ICU, where the patient's relatives can enter without restrictions

There are currently 68 patients in the hospital, twenty of them in the intensive care unit. Here the ICU has nothing to do with the ones in Spain: they are conventional hospital rooms, but they have ventilators. The medical staff do not wear any protective clothing - only a simple surgical mask - and relatives are crowded around the patient's bed without any kind of preventive measures.

Asaluddin Kazizada is one of the patients in the hospital. He has been in hospital for a month, and before that he spent three more weeks in a private hospital where, he says, he spent a fortune: 9,000 Afghanis on medicines (about 90 euros) and 21,000 on oxygen cylinders (214). Riza Mehdiyan also took her mother to a private facility before admitting her to the Afghan-Japan Hospital. Both of them have the same reason: they never imagined that a public hospital in Afghanistan would have so many resources. Resources, however, that came from abroad and have now vanished.

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