Rising malnutrition and overcrowded hospitals push Afghans deeper into despair

With aid suspended and almost $10 billion in bank funds remaining frozen, Afghanistan has been thrown into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis

When Latifa Haidari finally arrived in Kabul two weeks ago, her nine-month-old son Loqman was already severely malnourished and dehydrated. Doctors told her it had almost been too late.

Loqman had been sick for several weeks, but with no adequate health facility available and the powdered milk Mrs Haidari usually purchased out of stock, his health quickly deteriorated. His body became frail and dehydrated.

“I travelled to Kabul to try to save his life,” the 32-year-old mother of seven told The National. She had barely been able to pay the 700 Afghani [$8] bus fare from her native Baghlan province – an eight-hour drive through the Hindu Kush and over the Salang Mountain Pass – to Kabul.

Mrs Haidari had come alone, which is uncommon in Afghanistan, but paying for an additional bus ticket for her husband or another relative had been impossible, so she decided to take the risk to try to save her son’s life.

Since the Taliban’s military takeover in August, Afghanistan has been thrown into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis as almost $10 billion in bank funds – most of them private assets – remain frozen and the majority of aid has been put on hold.

The hardline group has since been trying to set up a functioning government, but it lacks international recognition and there are internal divides within the group.

Throughout the country, 2,000 health facilities are now in the process of closing or have already shut their doors as money has dried up, according to the Red Cross, leaving millions of people without access to doctors and – struck by poverty – unable to travel long distances to seek health care.

Few signs of improvement are visible as the international community is in no rush to formally recognise the ‘Islamic Emirate’s’ government. Amid increasing inflation, widespread unemployment and few funds available within the country, desperation is growing and fears are rising that Afghanistan could once again – as it did during the 1996-2001 Taliban rule – become a failed state.

Aid groups now warn that more than seven million children are at risk of hunger throughout the country.

“At least one million children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year and could die without proper treatment,” the Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore said in a report last month.

Half of Afghanistan's children under five are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition, latest data released by the Unicef showed, while 14 million people could face acute food insecurity.

The Sehatmandi project – the biggest donor-funded health initiative providing health care in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces – is currently running at only 17 per cent capacity.

Haidari said that while she felt safer now – the journey from Baghlan to Kabul had previously been dangerous, at times passing front lines and Taliban checkpoints – “everything else” had become worse.

“We can’t afford food and medicine and we have no fully functioning hospitals in our province. We even had to borrow money for my trip to Kabul,” she said, holding her frail son in her arms.

“I don’t know how I’ll get home and I don’t know if I’ll be able to take my other children to hospital if they get sick.”

At the Indira Ghani Children’s Hospital, where Loqman is recovering, doctors and nurses are trying to cope with a massive influx of patients.

“It’s much more than last year,” said the malnutrition ward’s head nurse, Mohammed Anwar.

“Sometimes we admit up to 12 malnourished children a day, with parents coming here from all over the country. It’s getting worse because poverty is significantly increasing and health services across the country are either limited or closed completely. At the same time, roads are open and safe to travel on for the first time in years, so more patients are coming to Kabul.”

Zenad Sawkey, 36, brought her malnourished 3-year-old son Sohaib to Kabul a week ago, a five-hour drive from her home in the eastern Kunar province.

“There are no jobs in Kunar and no good hospitals to treat children. My husband is a farmer and was mostly selling in Pakistan, but since the Taliban came, he hasn’t been able to do any business. We’re out of money,” she said, sitting next to Sohaib, the room full of other mothers and their children.

Anwar believes that “this is just the start”, with Indira Ghani being the country’s biggest and best equipped hospital.

“If people don’t have access to money and food, more children will face hunger. We’re at the start of a crisis that could see many lives lost.”

Updated: October 7th 2021, 7:23 AM