Afghans brace for deadly virus spike as winter looms

Afghans brace for deadly virus spike as winter looms
A patient gets tested for COVID-19 at a private hospital in Kabul on Tuesday. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
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Updated 02 December 2020

Afghans brace for deadly virus spike as winter looms

Afghans brace for deadly virus spike as winter looms
  • Up to 90,000 at risk, officials warn, as hospitals hit by second wave

KABUL: Health officials in Afghanistan have warned that the onset of winter could lead to a spike in coronavirus cases in the country, with at least 90,000 people likely to be infected during a second wave of the pandemic.

“Even before the emergence of the coronavirus, Afghanistan faced enormous shortcomings in its health sector, and the virus has added to the crisis,” Masooma Jafari, a health ministry spokesperson, told Arab News.

Decades of war coupled with the pandemic have further stretched the country’s hospitals, which lack essential medical resources such as oxygen plants, diagnostic kits and ventilators for a population of more than 37 million.

Up till Tuesday, the national virus caseload stood at 46,698 infections and 1,784 deaths, according to government figures.

Afghanistan has 117 state-run hospitals, with at least seven dedicated to coronavirus treatment. There are also 23 diagnostic laboratories at public and private hospitals with a capacity to conduct 6,000 tests daily.

However, authorities have been forced to close 14 private laboratories due to inadequate facilities and for breaching Health Ministry directives.

Jafari said the government’s focus now was on “reimposing strict measures” to curb the spread of the virus.

“Many families are poor and huddle near one stove in one room. So we are recommending the closure of wedding halls and making masks mandatory among other restrictions,” she said.

Akmal Samsoor, the health ministry’s head of publication, said that mobile health teams will identify residents with mild symptoms and provide medical help during  door-to-door visits.

This was crucial to address the issue of limited bed space at most hospitals, he said.

“We have a comprehensive plan for the second wave and have been implementing it for weeks now. Part of it is to prevent the spread of the infection. We are also strengthening the health system, and increasing the number of beds and laboratories,” Samsoor told Arab News.

Since the outbreak was first reported in March, the government has allocated $16 million for anti-coronavirus measures, with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank pumping in a combined $140 million into the initiative.

The health officials’ predictions follow an international donor conference in Geneva last week where ministers from nearly 70 countries and officials of humanitarian organizations renewed their pledge to extend $12 billion in aid to Afghanistan over the next four years if the country makes progress in peace talks with the Taliban in Doha.

After facing criticism over its handling of the pandemic, President Ashraf Ghani’s administration has held regular meetings with the country’s medical council.

“The coronavirus will stay here for years, so we will need more funds and resources because we have to build more hospitals and strengthen our health system,” Samsoor said.

Despite almost two months of lockdown since March, many Afghans continue to ignore rules and social distancing measures.

“However, the fatality rate has remained low compared with that in developed countries,” Samsoor said.


Biden’s US revives support for WHO, reversing Trump retreat

NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, January 21, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, January 21, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Updated 25 min 41 sec ago

Biden’s US revives support for WHO, reversing Trump retreat

NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, January 21, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
  • President Joe Biden’s top adviser on the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says the US will again fund the WHO
  • Trump's US halted funding for the UN health agency — stripping it of badly needed cash as it was battling a health crisis

GENEVA: The United States will resume funding for the World Health Organization and join its consortium aimed at sharing coronavirus vaccines fairly around the globe, President Joe Biden’s top adviser on the pandemic said Thursday, renewing support for an agency that the Trump administration had pulled back from.
Dr. Anthony Fauci’s quick commitment to the WHO — whose response to the pandemic has been criticized by many, but perhaps most vociferously by the Trump administration — marks a dramatic and vocal shift toward a more cooperative approach to fighting the pandemic.
“I am honored to announce that the United States will remain a member of the World Health Organization,” Fauci told a virtual meeting of the WHO from the United States, where it was 4:10 a.m. in Washington. It was the first public statement by a member of Biden’s administration to an international audience — and a sign of the priority that the new president has made of fighting COVID-19 both at home and with world partners.
Just hours after Biden’s inauguration Wednesday, he wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres saying the US had reversed the planned pullout from the WHO that was expected to take effect in July.
The withdrawal from the WHO was rich with symbolism — another instance of America’s go-it-alone strategy under Trump. But it also had practical ramifications: The US halted funding for the UN health agency — stripping it of cash from the country that has long been its biggest donor just as the agency was battling the health crisis that has killed more than 2 million people worldwide. The US had also pulled back staff from the organization.
Fauci said the Biden administration will resume “regular engagement” with WHO and will “fulfill its financial obligations to the organization.”
The WHO chief and others jumped in to welcome the US announcements.
“This is a good day for WHO and a good day for global health,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “The role of the United States, its role, global role is very, very crucial.”
The two men hinted at a warm relationship between them, with Fauci calling Tedros his “dear friend” and Tedros referring to Fauci as “my brother Tony.”
The White House said later Thursday that Vice President Kamala Harris had discussed many of the same themes as Fauci raised in a call with Tedros.
But she emphasized the need to beef up the global response to COVID-19, “mitigate its secondary impacts, including on women and girls,” and work to “prevent the next outbreak from becoming an epidemic or pandemic,” the White House said in a statement.
“In addition, the vice president emphasized the importance of making America safer through global cooperation,” it added, highlighting the new tone out of Washington.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the renewed commitment “great news” in an email. “The world has always been a better place when the US plays a leadership role in solving global health problems including the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria, polio and other diseases,” he said.
Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke wrote on Facebook: “This is going to have a huge impact on the world’s ability to fight the pandemic. It is decisive that the United States is involved as a driving force and not a country that is looking for the exit when a global catastrophe rages.”
Fauci also said Biden will issue a directive Thursday that shows the United States’ intent to join the COVAX Facility, a project to deploy COVID-19 vaccines to people in need around the world — whether in rich or poor countries.
Under Trump, the US had been the highest-profile — and most deep-pocketed — holdout from the COVAX Facility, which has struggled to meet its goals of distributing millions of vaccines both because of financial and logistic difficulties.
WHO and leaders in many developing countries have repeatedly expressed concerns that poorer places could be the last to get COVID-19 vaccines, while noting that leaving vast swaths of the global population unvaccinated puts everyone at risk.
While vowing US support, Fauci also pointed to some key challenges facing WHO. He said the US was committed to “transparency, including those events surrounding the early days of the pandemic.”
One of the Trump administration’s biggest criticisms was that the WHO reacted too slowly to the outbreak in Wuhan, China, and was too accepting of and too effusive about the Chinese government’s response to it. Others have also shared those criticisms — but public health experts and many countries have argued that, while the organization needs reform, it remains vital.
Referring to a WHO-led probe looking for the origins of the coronavirus by a team that is currently in China, Fauci said: “The international investigation should be robust and clear, and we look forward to evaluating it.”
He said the US would work with WHO and partner countries to “strengthen and reform” the agency, without providing specifics.
At the White House later in the day, Fauci quipped to Jeff Zients, who is directing the national response to the coronavirus, “You can imagine the comments we were getting from the people in the WHO.”
Then he added, his voice trailing off, “They were lining up to thank ...”