COVID: A huge tragedy is unfolding in Afghanistan | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 16.06.2021

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COVID: A huge tragedy is unfolding in Afghanistan

The delta variant is possibly behind a surge in infections in Afghanistan. But official figures don't give the real picture, and there hasn't been much media attention to the ongoing wave.

A person comforts a COVID patient at Kabul's Muhammed Ali Jinnah hospital

Experts say the COVID situation could get out of control in Afghanistan

The number of COVID-19 cases in Afghanistan has risen exponentially over the past few weeks, with hospitals struggling to deal with the ongoing wave.

Health officials in almost all Afghan provinces are sounding the alarm, saying the country is facing a devastating health crisis.

Doctors in one of Kabul's two main hospitals told DW that there aren't enough beds to treat new COVID-19 patients.

"We have 150 beds but somehow managed to admit 170 patients. The number of COVID patients coming here is increasing, but we don't have beds or oxygen to help them," Tariq Akbari, head of the Afghan Japan Hospital in Kabul, told DW.

"At the moment, we can provide oxygen to only 30 patients. We are trying to attach the oxygen supply system to other beds, but it will take some time," he added.

As most hospitals in Afghanistan are not equipped to treat COVID-19 patients, people infected with the virus are forced to seek help from common clinics.

"I contracted the coronavirus, but the hospital staff told me they do not have enough beds," Abdullah, a resident of Herat province, told DW.

New COVID-19 cases per capita – selected Asian countries – updated June 16, 2021 – EN

A worsening health crisis

According to Afghanistan's Public Health Ministry, more than 3,800 people have died of COVID-19 as of June 16, but experts say the actual number is much higher because of the low testing rate. Also, many COVID deaths are not being registered as virus-related fatalities.

"This wave is deadlier. We believe it is the Indian-origin delta variant that spreads faster," Akbari said, adding that an average of 14 daily deaths are being recorded in his hospital.

The government has closed schools, universities, wedding halls and beauty salons to slow the spread. But these measures have not proven effective so far, as other places where the virus can spread rapidly — markets, shops — remain open to the public. Most people are not wearing masks and following health protocols because the government has not made it mandatory.

The vaccination rate is also very low in Afghanistan. The Muslim-majority country of some 36 million people has administered only 1 million doses of COVID vaccine, mostly to front-line health workers and members of the security forces. Last week, Afghanistan received 700,000 doses of China's Sinopharm vaccine, but health experts say the number of vaccinated people is too low to achieve herd immunity.

Almost no media attention

Even though a huge health crisis is unfolding in Afghanistan, there hasn't been much coverage of it in the international media.

Afghans, however, continue to share pictures and videos of COVID-19 patients on social media, which illustrate a dire situation.

"Everyone knows someone who has died of COVID. I used Facebook to have a good time in the past, but now it has become too depressing, with almost everyone posting about COVID-related deaths," Mehrabuddin Hakimi, a Kunduz resident, told DW.

Rampant poverty and a weak public health infrastructure are complicating Afghanistan's battle with the pandemic. The ongoing conflict between the government and Taliban militants also makes the health emergency extremely difficult to control. More than half of the districts in Afghanistan are controlled by the militant group, and hardly any tests are available in these regions.

"People cannot keep distance from COVID patients. They need to take care of them, and because they are not health professionals, they end up getting the virus, too," Hakimi said.

Despite assurances of financial support from the international community, there are not enough testing kits and medical equipment to treat everyone in Afghanistan.

Experts say Afghanistan needs immediate international help to deal with the virus, otherwise things will get out of control there.

Additional reporting by Karim Saleh and Parwaneh Alizadah.