Afghanistan’s healthcare system is on the brink of collapse, the World Health Organization warned in early February 2022. After four decades of war, a persistent severe drought, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the number of Afghans suffering from acute poverty and poor health has increased substantially. Without funds to pay doctors and purchase medical supplies, the remaining physicians and hospitals are unable to respond to the growing demand for medical services. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) predicts over 90% of the country’s health clinics are expected to shut down without adequate funding. In response to the crisis, the United States has revised its sanction policy on the Taliban to allow the transfer of money to aid groups in Afghanistan (Reuters).
Martin Griffiths, a UN emergency aid coordinator warned, “A fully blown humanitarian catastrophe looms. Don’t shut the door on Afghanistan.” The United Nations has requested more than $5 billion from international donors in January 2022, the greatest amount ever requested for a single country (New York Times). Dr. Luo Dapeng, the WHO Representative in Afghanistan reported “the recent funding pause by key donors to the country’s biggest health program (Sehatmandi) will cause the majority of public health facilities to close (WHO).”
“For 20 years, we kept Afghanistan on a transfusion,” said Filipe Riberio, a representative for Médecins Sans Frontières, “Overnight we removed the drip. Now we have to find a way to put it back (New York Times).”
The United States’ new guidance regarding sanctions on the Taliban is a necessary step in addressing the health crisis in Afghanistan, but it is insufficient. The $308 million dollars of relief authorized by the United States are not enough to cover the health and safety needs of the Afghan people (New York Times). These infusions of aid are minor compared to the billions of dollars Afghanistan was initially receiving from international bodies (Reuters). 40 years of crisis, including the 20-year war with the United States, “have weakened the country’s ability to cope with new shocks (IRC).” The Taliban are also contributing to the destruction of their own people by failing to fund public healthcare, especially the Sehatmandi program which provides essential primary care services. With major funding withdrawn and the increased difficulty of aid access, the doctors who remain cannot manage the crisis on their own (WHO). The IRC notes that these funding lapses will deeply affect women and girls, especially those seeking maternal health, as female doctors have fled the country.
Afghanistan has been veering towards collapse since the United States withdrew and the Taliban took control of the country in August 2021. Since then, most major international donors have frozen funds to prevent the Taliban from accessing what would otherwise be used for public services (Reuters). Despite a decline in war-related casualties, a lack of private facilities and the increasing danger of travel has led to “outbreaks of diarrhea, measles, dengue fever, malaria, and COVID-19 threatening to overwhelm overburdened hospitals (New York Times).” The Indira Gandhi hospital has been overwhelmed with 500 patients for its 360-bed facility, and infants are often forced to share beds in the malnutrition ward (New York Times). Save the Children reported a rising number of cases of pneumonia, especially in children, which displays the extent of of malnutrition in the younger population.
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the public health situation in Afghanistan. Dr. Tariq Ahmad Akbari says, “When I try to talk to people about COVID-19, they say we have no food, no water, no electricity, why should we care about this virus?” Afghan hospitals lack critical oxygen supplies required to treat COVID-19 patients, but fewer people are seeking assistance for COVID-19 while trying to survive other diseases and poverty (New York Times). Afghanistan is on the brink of collapse as the world watches. The United States and other donor nations must further liberalize their sanctions and contribute more to funding Afghan healthcare. The Taliban also has a critical responsibility to cooperate with organizations and properly administer aid they may receive for public services. The humanitarian catastrophe looming in Afghanistan will cost the lives of millions if not addressed rapidly and sufficiently.