Reporting by Abdul Karim Azim, Sima Siawash, Nazar Mohammad Razmal Zaman, Mirzahussain Sadid, Written by Abdul Ahad Poya, edited by Mohammad J. Alizada and Brian J. Conley
Nearly two years have passed since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world and with it, Afghanistan. Although the number of people contracting other variants of the COVID-19 are declining, the people of Afghanistan are very concerned about the highly contagious Omicron variant of the Coronavirus.
The Afghan public and health officials say the country’s bad economic situation, the halt of international aid, especially from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the closure of health centers tending to COVID-19 patients due to lack of funding are very concerning as the Omicron variant continues spreading throughout Afghanistan.
An Afghan doctor who spoke to Alive in Afghanistan on the condition of anonymity said they had not been paid for the last 8 months, which poses a problem for Afghanistan’s already collapsing health system.
“Meanwhile people are not paying any attention to the coronavirus, the developments in Afghanistan made everyone forget about the virus,” the doctor said.
According to the WHO, there have been 173,659 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 7,598 deaths in Afghanistan as of 27 February 2022. The organization says that a total of 5,535,254 vaccine doses have been administered to Afghans so far.
But those are only registered cases, many Afghans who have contracted the coronavirus, especially those living in rural areas with no access to health facilities have not been counted, meaning the number could be much higher.
Javid Hazhbar, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Public Health said Afghanistan has around 3 million vaccine doses available currently. The Ministry expects another 8 million vaccines will be donated to Afghanistan in the near future. According to Mr. Hazhbar, the vaccines used in Afghanistan are Johnson and Johnson, Sinopharm and AstraZeneca.
Moreover, the Ministry of Public Health has distributed around 40,000 coronavirus test kits available throughout the country.
Saifullah Nayibi, a resident of the 7th district of Kabul city brought his uncle to the Afghan-Japan hospital after he contracted COVID-19. He says it's been 5 days since his uncle was admitted.
“The doctors are seriously trying but this is a disease that doesn’t have a certain cure, the other unfortunate aspect is the people’s economic situation while this Omicron variant keeps spreading across the globe,” Mr. Nayibi told Alive in Afghanistan.
Mr. Nayibi wants Afghans to take health guidelines seriously, wear masks, wash their hands with warm water and soap and avoid mass gatherings.
A woman outside the Afghan-Japan hospital who requested to remain anonymous has brought her mother-in-law to the hospital. Her mother-in-law had tuberculosis and the doctors told her family that she had contracted the coronavirus.
“She was under medication for tuberculosis for 6 months and already had a weak respiratory system when she contracted the coronavirus, it’s now been around two months since she has been in this hospital,” the woman said.
She praised the efforts of the health workers in tending to the patients but said the hospital doesn’t have a proper heating system, family members tending to the patients do not have a proper place to sleep and the medical staff do not allow them to bring their own blankets.
Meanwhile Bahara Gulzad, another Kabul resident says the spread of the virus might prove hazardous and chaotic for Afghanistan given people’s bad economic situation and the Taliban government’s inability to provide test kits and remedies to reduce the severity of the disease. This is while the WHO has reversed course and is no longer providing assistance to the Afghan health sector.
Sakhi Saberi, a physician at the Afghan-Japan hospital says that they are preparing to combat the fourth wave of the coronavirus that is spreading throughout the globe at the moment.
“We are highly concerned about the further spread of the pandemic, Afghanistan’s health situation is not very good, and coronavirus treatment centers have closed down across the country due to lack of resources and services,” Dr. Saberi told Alive in Afghanistan.
Saberi is concerned about the lack of funds available to combat the virus and says the Taliban government must solve this issue so the country can be better prepared to fight the virus. In his opinion, the cold, shortage of health services, and shortage of food are also factors contributing to the severity of the virus.
Doctors at Kabul-Japan hospital still try to tend to patients as best they can with the resources at hand.
Dr. Saberi says, “We don’t have the necessary kits for diagnosing the variant, we only have kits to test for COVID-19 but cannot distinguish Omicron.” Clinical symptoms gathered from patients after testing their blood and other testing phases come out negative, but this only shows us that it might be another mutation; the doctors at Afghan-Japan Hospital cannot definitively verify one way or the other without additional testing.
Dr. Zalmai Reshtin, the head of the Afghan-Japan hospital says, “We have had an increase in the number of individuals contracting the virus within the past two weeks, meanwhile we no longer have the capability that we used to.”
Dr. Tariq Ahmad Akbari, head of the doctors at the hospital says, “The number of cases and fatalities in the past few weeks have increased because centers for treating COVID-19 has had to close due to lack of funding and shortage of equipment.”
According to Dr. Akbari, no urban quarantine measures exist in Afghanistan, the only existing measures are doctors emphasizing the need for quarantine to patients and their caretakers. Most of the patients being admitted to the hospital are elderly women and men.
While the coronavirus spread throughout Afghanistan and the vaccine became available, the public was also divided on receiving the shots. A number of Afghans refused to get the shots while others had to pay between 500 to 3000 Afghanis in private pharmacies to get their dose.
Alive in Afghanistan spoke to residents and public health officials in the provinces of Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Daikundi, Bamyan, Badghis, Kunar, Nimroz, Balkh, Kapisa and Badakhshan. The residents of these provinces were divided on getting vaccinated, some did not believe that coronavirus is real nor that it can cause severe illness.
Some citizens say the reason for not vaccinating are due to misinformation on social media. Misinformation included the inability to get pregnant after two years of getting the vaccine (click here for more information about COVID-19 Vaccination during pregnancy) among women and the weakness of the body. A number of people refused to get the vaccine citing religious concerns while others simply haven’t been able to access the vaccine.
Nabila Jabbari, a Kabul resident said, “The coronavirus vaccine has it’s benefits, but I didn’t want to vaccinate because I had heard about the severe pain, fatigue and fever following receiving the shot which kept me from getting it.”
“My brother’s wife contracted the coronavirus in the last days of her pregnancy and her husband brought her a vaccine and administered it himself, his wife got well but they lost the child, and it inflamed her uterus, this really scared me,” Ms. Jabbari told Alive in Afghanistan.
However the mRNA vaccines do not cause infertility, or lead to fetal loss, the loss of child could be due to a wide host of issues including the coronavirus itself, which the woman had contracted prior to getting vaccinated. The woman in question received the vaccine at home administered by her husband, the child was buried without any post mortem procedures, therefore the actual cause for the loss remains unclear.
Mohammad Ehsan Babakarkhel from eastern Kabul said he and his wife received the Indian version of the vaccine but his sister-in-law who was young died after contracting the virus and has left behind two children.
Muhaddesa Rizwani, another Kabul resident sayid her entire family had received their shots at a public hospital but she didn’t do it because her friends were telling her about the side effects of the vaccine.
Bibi Hamida, a resident of southern Kandahar province who has received her first shot says, “All adults in our family received their vaccines and we have had no problems. Some people had conveyed to us that we will have fever and body aches but we still did it.”
55 year-old Haji Ahmadullah Kandahari told Alive in Afghanistan, “I contracted the coronavirus last year and I had a really bad experience, I vaccinated after and haven’t contracted it again.”
According to Mr. Kandahari, some residents are fearful of getting vaccinated because they guess that foreign countries want to transmit other types of diseases to them through the vaccine but, “We got our shots despite their beliefs.”
On the contrary, Mohammad Ismail, a resident of Kandahar’s Dand district said, “The coronavirus is a propaganda by foreigners, it doesn’t exist, it’s just the simple flu.”
Health officials in Kandahar say 9,968 people have contracted the coronavirus in the province since the start of the pandemic with 247 fatalities. 917 people are under treatment for contracting the virus throughout Kandahar.
Dr. Mohammad Sarwar Ferozi, a coronavirus prevention authority in Kandahar province, says the vaccination campaign continues in all coronavirus treatment centers in the province. 200,000 Kandahar residents have received their vaccines so far. According to Dr. Ferozi, a large-scale vaccination campaign will be launched throughout Kandahar in the near future.
In western Herat province, Roqia Mohammadi, a local resident denies the rumors that the coronavirus vaccine causes different types of illnesses, she says it's important to get vaccinated in order to be able to give the body’s immune system a fighting chance.
But Abdul Raqib Niayzi and Abdul Hai, residents of south-western Nimroz province are not aware of the vaccine’s effectiveness and are only getting vaccinated in order to get their vaccine cards as it is a requirement to travel to neighboring Iran where they work.
Wazir Ahmad and Mohamamd Naim, residents of western Badghis province who have been vaccinated urge other Afghans to get vaccinated to prevent catching the virus.
Herat health officials say they are optimistic about residents’ interest in getting vaccinated. Although Dr. Mohammad Amin Khamosh, a public health official charged with Covid-19 vaccination campaign cites the problem with shortage of test kits, he says 76 two man teams are dispersed through Herat province to carry out the vaccination campaign.
Dr. Khamosh says the vaccines available so far are Johnson and Johnson, as well as Indian and Chinese made vaccine Sinopharm. Dr. Khamosh adds that 50 percent of Herat’s population have been vaccinated, the highest compared to other provinces.
65 year-old Azizullah Haidari from Nili, the capital of Afghanistan’s central Daikundi province says, “I have gotten the virus twice and have been treated at home, I am not afraid of the virus.”
24 year-old Neda Tajik from Nili who sells women’s clothes has yet to think about getting vaccinated. Gul Andam Mohammadi, a 31 year-old resident of Nili who owns a beauty salon said she has not been vaccinated because she heard that it will be harmful after 2 years of getting the shot.
Health officials in the province say vaccinations are conducted free of charge at health centers throughout the province and residents can get their doses at any health center close to them.
Dr. Haidar Ali Amiri, a surveillance officer for the provincial Public Health Directorate told Alive in Afghanistan that 2,977 people in the province had contracted the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, 67 of whom, including 23 women had died.
“We used to have mobile vaccination teams, but we only have the vaccine available at health centers at the moment,” Dr. Amiri said. According to Dr. Amiri, there is only one 50-bed coronavirus treatment center in the province after the collapse of the previous Afghan government.
Ali Dad Roshan in central Bamyan province says his family members have received a third dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine but a large number of people have not received it due to lack of health centers and services in their area or the distance of the health centers from their place of residence.
According to him, “Only 14 health centers had the capability to vaccinate residents out of the total of 74, which is one of the reasons residents are not vaccinating themselves.”
Mr. Roshan says existing misinformation among people has also been a deterrent, an example is that the vaccine kills them after they receive it. A health worker in Bamyan with an underlying health condition died after receiving the vaccine, which prompted a province-wide scare and concern about the safety of the vaccine.
Khadim Khadim, a resident of eastern Kunar province says, “Kunar received US made vaccines first, at that time it was only available for government staff, then schools. Now it’s available in all clinics and hospitals throughout the province. My mother and I have been vaccinated.”
According to Mr. Khadim, a number of residents are reluctant about getting vaccinated. They say it’s not trustworthy and it’s possible that it will harm them in the future.
“One of my brothers doesn’t want to get vaccinated because he has heard in local and international news that the vaccine is harmful to your health,” Mr. Khadim said.
Misinformation, lack of awareness, and confusion surrounding the coronavirus is still spreading around Afghanistan. Additionally lack of understanding about the effectiveness and use of coronavirus vaccines plagues the effort to curb the pandemic. Despite the odds, Afghanistan’s health sector is working equally hard to protect Afghans across the country.