After the Taliban fell in 2001, India moved in quickly to renovate Kabul’s Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health (IGICH). Though a popular hospital — patients travel from all corners of Afghanistan for treatment — its facilities are deteriorating; nurses speak of corpses falling off broken stretchers. So while New Delhi periodically supplies IGICH with medicines, impoverished Afghans look for larger doses of support.
“We have no medicines to give our patients, not even essential ones,” says Dr Shahzada, who has spent the past two years in the orthopaedic unit. “We often have to ask patients to buy injections.” While such purchases may be commonplace around the globe, it is difficult as most parents who come to IGICH are unemployed and below the poverty line.
The institute, now run by Afghanistan’s health ministry, was built by India in 1972, and after passing through a long phase of neglect — coinciding with the long war and subsequent radical governments — after the Taliban had been driven out in 2002.
“IGICH is the largest, best and most popular paediatric government hospital in Afghanistan,” says Dr Shah Mahmoud of the emergency ward.
But there are problems. A notice in the main foyer says only operations are free; patients have to pay for all tests, including x-rays. “Many patients do not have food to eat, where will their parents get the money?” asks Dr Shahzada. An example is seven-year-old Mazira, admitted after an accident. Her mother Ziabul says she had to borrow the money for x-rays from relatives. “We are a family of 11 and my husband is unemployed,” Ziabul says. An estimated one of every three Afghans is unemployed.
Sometimes the hospital staff pools in to help out a child. Nurse Najib of the emergency ward recounts, “We had a patient in critical condition. His parents were penniless. We get only 10 per cent of the oxygen we should from the government, but his oxygen and medicines bill came to 500 Afghanis (about US$10). So all of us put our money together and saved him.”
They cannot always be benefactors, considering they are underpaid. “The average salary of a doctor is 2,000 Afghanis (US$40),” laments Dr Zabih Ullah Rahim. “As soon as anyone gets a better salary, they leave.” Dr Mahmoud is not one of them. “I joined to gain knowledge, not to become rich. Given this country’s economic condition, you cannot get everything you want. But everyone is trying to do their best.”
Najiba, a grandmother was grateful. “My granddaughter was suffering from a heart ailment, and they admitted her in 20 minutes. Pariza is much better. This was unthinkable a few years ago.” New Delhi is planning to donate an MRI and other machines, sources said.
Shehnaz, a cleaner, says, “Rather than these machines, I would like Indians to contribute stretchers to move corpses safely. The ones we have are broken, and the dead fall from either side when moved.”
Email Shreevatsa Nevatia: firstname.lastname@example.org