KABUL: Afghanistan’s is racing to ramp up supplies of oxygen as a deadly third surge of Covid-19 worsens, a senior health official said in an interview on Saturday.

The government is installing oxygen supply plants in 10 provinces where the increase in Covid cases in some areas is hovering around 65pc, health ministry spokesman Ghulam Dasigi Nazary said.

By WHO recommendations, anything higher than 5pc shows officials aren’t testing widely enough, allowing the virus to spread unchecked. Afghanistan carries out barely 4,000 tests a day and often much less.

Afghanistan’s 24-hour infection count has also continued its upward climb from 1,500 at the end of May when the health ministry was already calling the surge a crisis, to more than 2,300 this week. Since the pandemic outbreak, Afghanistan is reporting 101,906 positive cases and 4,122 deaths. But those figures are likely a massive undercount, registering only deaths in hospitals not the far greater numbers who die at home.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan received 900 oxygen cylinders from Iran on Saturday, part of 3,800 cylinders Tehran promised to deliver to Kabul last week. The shipment was delayed by Iran’s presidential elections, said Nazary.

Afghanistan has even run out of empty cylinders, receiving a delivery of 1,000 last week from Uzbekistan.

Meanwhile hospitals are rationing their oxygen supplies. Afghans desperate for oxygen are banging on the doors of the few oxygen suppliers in the Afghan capital, begging for their empty cylinders to be filled for Covid infected loved ones at home.

Abdul Wasi, whose wife has been sick for nearly 10 days, has been waiting four days for one 45-liter cylinder to be filled at the Najb Siddiqi oxygen plant in east Kabul. Scores of mostly men were banging on the 10-foot steel gate of the oxygen plant. Some rolled their empty oxygen cylinders up against the gate, while others waved small slips of paper carrying the number of their cylinder inside the plant, waiting to be filled.

Wasi said there were no hospital beds for his wife, whose oxygen level hovers around 70-80pc. They are rationing her, he said giving her small amounts of oxygen when it drops to around 45 -50pc.

How can I do anything else? I have been waiting four days for my cylinder to be filled, he said. The oxygen plant refills cylinders for 400 Afghanis (roughly $5), while in the market it costs 4,000 Afghanis (roughly $50).

For the country’s poor over half of Afghanistan 36 million people according to World Bank figures the situation has become desperate.

Wasi said on Friday as he waited outside the oxygen plant that a patient on a stretcher was carried to the door while the family begged for oxygen. The patient died.

Right there, he said pointing to the gate. I saw them carrying the patient. They were crying and begging and then he died.

Barat Ali had arrived at the plant at 6am on Saturday. It was his third day waiting for his cylinder to be filled.

The poor people in this country have nothing. I have been standing in the sun for eight hours, he said clutching his small piece of paper that contained his cylinder number. The government has eaten all the (international) donations.

Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2021

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