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Afghan health care faces collapse amid economic crisis

Ahmad Hakimi
December 24, 2021

The war-torn country's health system has been facing a severe crisis since the Taliban takeover, which resulted in the suspension of much-needed international aid.

Medical personnel treat COVID-19 patients at the intensive care unit of the Muhammed Ali Jinnah hospital in Kabul
With the omicron variant spreading worldwide, Afghan doctors are bracing for more COVID infectionsImage: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP

Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in mid-August, the Islamic fundamentalist group has been struggling to gain international recognition of their rule.   

In the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan is facing a severe economic and humanitarian crisis, which has also had ramifications for public health.

The war-torn nation's health care system is on the brink of collapse and has been able to function only with help from aid organizations.

Hospital administrators say they are facing severe financial and logistical problems, ranging from the lack of money to pay salaries of health care personnel to shortages of medicines and essential equipment, among other things.

Esmatullah, who goes by one name, said he had brought his sick father to Kabul for medical treatment.

"My father is sick and we came from Badakhshan province. But hospitals are closed due to lack of medicines and nonpayment of salaries. We also have issues with shortages of medicines," he told DW.

Drought, COVID and no cash

After the Taliban took over, the international community pulled all funding and froze billions of dollars of Afghanistan's assets abroad.

The US alone froze nearly $9.5 billion (€8.4 billion) from the Afghan central bank, and the World Bank also suspended aid to Kabul.

For a nation heavily dependent on foreign assistance — international aid had represented 40% of Afghanistan's GDP and financed 80% of its budget — the consequences have been devastating. Both the economy and the nation's currency have collapsed.

At the same time, the country has been battered by a severe drought and the coronavirus pandemic.

With the newly discovered omicron variant of the coronavirus spreading rapidly worldwide, Afghan doctors are bracing for more infections in the country.

"Winter is a hard time in Afghanistan, and we also have the threat of COVID-19, including the omicron and delta variants' transmission, as well as the impact of the ongoing drought on food security in the country," Suraya Dalil, director of the WHO Special Programme on Primary Health Care, told DW.

"We have a complex situation compounded by humanitarian needs on top of the coronavirus pandemic," said Dalil, who served as Afghanistan's health minister from 2010 to 2014.

"Even countries with strong health systems have faced difficulties responding to and recovering from repeated COVID waves. And, when it comes to Afghanistan, the situation is far more acute and it requires even more attention," she said.  

Pledges of international aid

Martin Griffiths, the UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, recently warned that Afghanistan cannot survive on donations alone.

He urged donor countries to show flexibility, allowing their money to pay the salaries of public sector workers and support "basic services such as health, education, electricity and livelihoods, to allow the people of Afghanistan some chance to get through this winter and some encouragement to remain home with their families." 

On Sunday, foreign ministers from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation agreed to set up a humanitarian fund to address the worsening humanitarian situation in Afghanistan.

A final statement from the meeting said allowing Afghanistan access to its financial resources would be key to preventing economic collapse. It also called for finding a way to unfreeze the nation's funds frozen in foreign banks.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also promised this week to work with international partners to help improve the situation in Afghanistan, pointing out that many people in the country are starving.  

"One can hardly bear it when one reads that families in their desperation are selling their daughters to buy food," she said, adding that 24 million Afghans were estimated to need assistance to survive this winter.

"We cannot allow hundreds of thousands of children to die because we don't want to take action," Baerbock said.

'More and more dire by the week'

Abdul Bari Omar, the Taliban's deputy health minister, told DW that the health services have been affected by the international sanctions. He said that winter will pose a public health challenge for Afghanistan.

He said Afghanistan had 3.5 million malnourished children, although he noted that the data was from the previous government.

"It didn't happen in the last four months. Malnutrition was inherited from the previous system, but we are trying to find a solution for this problem," he said, adding that the former administration also had failed to resolve shortages of medical equipment.

WHO official Dalil said Afghanistan had an effective health information system, which was the outcome of years of investment in health care. "It is important to keep that alive and working," she said.

On Wednesday, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a US-proposed resolution to help humanitarian aid reach desperate Afghans while seeking to keep funds out of Taliban hands.

The UN has also warned of a hunger crisis, with 22% of Afghanistan's 38 million people near famine and another 36% facing acute food insecurity.

"We're seeing the economic collapse being exponential," Griffiths told The Associated Press last week. "It's getting more and more dire by the week."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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