A nation’s healthcare system at ‘risk of collapse.’ Afghan doctors and health minister describe the looming catastrophe.

People gather to check on missing relatives a day after a twin suicide bombs attack, which killed scores of people including 13 US troops outside Kabul airport, at a hospital run by Italian NGO Emergency in Kabul on August 27, 2021
People gather to check on missing relatives a day after a twin suicide bombs attack, which killed scores of people including 13 US troops outside Kabul airport, at a hospital run by Italian NGO Emergency in Kabul on August 27, 2021 Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP
  • Insider investigated the state of healthcare in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
  • One midwife said she cannot get to work and says she is “devastated.”
  • Afghanistan is fast running out of medical supplies, said the World Health Organization.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Afghanistan’s healthcare system is on the brink of catastrophe, the acting Afghan health minister and a WHO representative have told Insider.

Speaking by phone from Kabul, Dr. Wahid Majrooh, Minister of Public Health, who has continued in his post after the Taliban takeover, told Insider that Afghanistan’s healthcare system is at “risk of collapse.”

Much hinges on the finances that have been pulled since the Taliban seized the country. The World Bank that announced this week it would halt aid to Afghanistan. It has committed more than $US5.3 ($AU7) billion to projects in Afghanistan since 2002, according to the BBC.

“We have a resilient healthcare system, but it’s too dependent on aid,” said Dr. Majrooh.

“When we hear messages from the World Bank or the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund donors – whether they say that they have put our funds on hold, or they’ve frozen them – what that means to me is 3700 health facilities will collapse. That the health of 35 million people will collapse,” he said.

Read more: Persecuted for their Mongol looks and Shia faith, Afghanistan’s Hazara people describe a terrifying future under Taliban rule

Dr. Richard Brennan, WHO’s Regional Emergency Director, warns Afghanistan is fast running out of medical supplies,

He told Insider. “Given the escalation of events over the last few weeks, there’s been a big increase in demand for medical supplies, including trauma supplies, but we’re essentially running out.

“Before the collapse of the Government, we had three flights lined up to bring supplies in as part of our support for the regular program and the increasing need in the country. But these didn’t make it because there are no commercial flights into the country,” he said.

Dr. Brennan estimated that the missed flights equated to roughly 90 metric tonnes of medical equipment.

There are fresh hopes for a flight with roughly 20-25 metric tonnes of supplies to make it to Kabul airport on August 30.

Afghanistan is also experiencing a “brain drain,” Dr. Brennan tells Insider. The smartest people are fleeing the country, leaving a gaping hole in its human resources.

A wounded patient lays in the recovery unit at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital. in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021
A wounded patient lays in the recovery unit at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital. in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021 MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES via Getty Images

Too dangerous for doctors

“It is only men that are allowed inside the hospital,” a distressed midwife in Afghanistan told Insider over the phone.

Aadela*’s husband acts as a translator for the conversation: “My wife, she can’t go outside. The Taliban has said she is not allowed to go to work.”

Even if women are allowed to go to their workplace – as conditions across the country vary – many women remain too terrified to leave their homes, they add.

“We have no good feeling for our country,” the married couple from Kabul said.

“If we find a chance, we will seriously leave Afghanistan,” they add in a text message.

Women, however, are not the only healthcare professionals forced to stay home.

The UN reports one Afghan doctor saying: “Sometimes, the security situation means I will stay at home. If there are reports of gunfire or other disturbances and roadblocks, the team members decide it is too dangerous to work. It can be very tense on the streets.”

Dr. Ghaws Sayyid,* who runs a hospital in Kabul, told Insider: “If your physical safety is not threatened, then your mental health is – for everyone.”

Meanwhile, with the three explosions rocking Kabul airport on August 26, violence is surging across Afghanistan. Since August 1, the International Red Cross has treated 7,600 patients with weapon wounds.

Njured people lie on stretchers at Vezir Ekber Han Hospital after the explosion at Hamid Karzai International Airport, the center of evacuation efforts from Afghanistan since the Taliban took over, in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 27, 2021.
Injured people lie on stretchers at Vezir Ekber Han Hospital after the explosion at Hamid Karzai International Airport, the center of evacuation efforts from Afghanistan since the Taliban took over, in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 27, 2021. Wali Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic

On August 18 – three days after the Taliban seized Kabul – Doctors without Borders released data showing that 200 patients were seen in the COVID-19 treatment center alone on the 15th and 16th of August.

A doctor from Kabul, who does not want to be named, told Insider that whilst the COVID-19 pandemic does not stop for the security risks, the vaccinations have come to a halt.

Dr. Sayyid manages a satirical laugh when COVID-19 is mentioned. “We’ve had a change in the Government and people have now forgotten about COVID,” he said.

“Before the Taliban arrived, we were coming out of a third wave of Covid,” he adds.”There’s concern that it will spike. Mass movement across the country, the scenes we saw of crowds at Kabul airport, they’re not good to contain the virus.”

Since the start of the pandemic, 153,000 cases of COVID-19 and 7,101 deaths have been recorded in Afghanistan, according to John Hopkins University. But since the takeover of the Taliban, the ability to test for the virus and record any cases has been made much harder.

Health minister Dr. Majrooh tells Insider that the country has been unable to get testing equipment, leaving the looming threat of COVID-19 harder to predict.

Since the Taliban took control, 1,190 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded but the real figure could be much higher.

A wounded patient walks out EMERGENCY Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021
A wounded patient walks out EMERGENCY Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021 MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES via Getty

Many conversations between Insider and medical professionals in Afghanistan were held after the Kabul airport bombing attack by ISIS-K, which killed at least 95 people, including 13 US servicemen and women, and wounded 150 others.

From conversations, be it short message exchanges to in-depth calls battling the crackles of international phone lines, it became clear that the medics of Afghanistan are terrified, if not by the work they have to do or the inability to get to their workplace, but by the Taliban in general.

“I’m devastated,” one doctor said before ending their call with Insider.

(*Names were changed to conceal the identities of healthcare workers)