Afghanistan’s health system in free fall as humanitarian crisis deepens

·2-min read
Wounded Afghans lie on a bed at a hospital after a deadly explosions outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan - AP
Wounded Afghans lie on a bed at a hospital after a deadly explosions outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan - AP

Afghanistan is slipping into a humanitarian catastrophe as its health system shuts down from lack of funding the United Nations has warned.

Freezes in international aid after the Taliban swept to power in August have left thousands of clinics and hospitals without money to buy supplies, or pay staff.

The UN on Wednesday released £33m ($45m) in emergency funding after a high-level mission from its health body, the World Health Organization (WHO), gave a bleak assessment of the country's health system, saying it was quickly falling apart.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director general, said: “Afghanistan’s health system is on the brink of collapse. Unless urgent action is taken, the country faces an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.”

The Afghan government has been nearly totally reliant on foreign aid for the past two decades, with around three-quarters of its budget paid by donors. Much of that aid ended overnight and billions in foreign reserves were frozen when the Taliban marched into Kabul and re-established their Islamic emirate in mid-August.

Donors face the dilemma of whether to resume aid that could save lives, but also bolster a new regime led by Taliban leaders on international sanctions lists who are currently banning girls from school and firing women from the workplace.

Some two-thirds of Afghan health facilities are part of a three-year, £440m ($600m) project overseen by the World Bank and funded by donors including the US, EU and others. Money was frozen after the Taliban takeover and fewer than than one-in-five clinics and hospitals are running at full capacity.

“Many of these facilities have now reduced operations or shut down, forcing health providers to make hard decisions on who to save and who to let die,” Dr Tedros said.

Huge sums of international aid have seen the country make headway tackling infant deaths, maternal mortality and disease, but those gains are now likely to be quickly reversed.

Nine out of 37 Covid-19 hospitals have already closed, and efforts to tackle the pandemic have been badly hit.

Martin Griffiths, the UN's emergency and humanitarian chief, said the emergency aid would be used to keep hospitals and clinics running until the end of the year.

He said: “Medicines, medical supplies and fuel are running out in Afghanistan. Cold chains are compromised. Essential health-care workers are not being paid.

“Allowing Afghanistan’s health-care delivery system to fall apart would be disastrous. People across the country would be denied access to primary health care such as emergency caesarian sections and trauma care.”

The Taliban this week announced a new public health minister, replacing Dr Wahid Majrooh, the only minister who had stayed at his post after Ashraf Ghani's government fled.

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