KABUL -- Low-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) imported from China threatens to increase the spread of the novel coronavirus rather than protect the healthcare professionals who rely on it, say Afghan doctors and concerned citizens.
When the COVID-19 disease started to spread in Afghanistan, Afghan traders bought most of the necessary medical supplies and equipment from China.
The World Health Organisation, the United Arab Emirates and Bejing also donated some medical supplies.
"Supplies that China donated to us are good quality because they are not commercial products but rather a [package] of government-to-government support," Ministry of Public Health spokesperson Wahidullah Mayar said April 25.
High risk from low-quality PPE
But the PPE that Afghans bought from Chinese traders is of low quality and has put Afghans, including doctors, at risk, say Afghans.
A number of factors contributed to the infection of doctors with the coronavirus, said Kabul physician Dr. Nasim Hashemi.
"Doctors contracted the coronavirus because of their carelessness, their presence on the front line treating COVID-19 patients, a shortage of PPE and their lower familiarity with these pieces of equipment," he said.
"The inferiority of equipment that the doctors use poses a serious threat to them, and PPE needs to be tested before health workers can use it," he said, referring to the medical equipment imported from China.
So far, four Afghan doctors have lost their lives to COVID-19, according to the Ministry of Public Health.
"More than 350 medical personnel have been infected by the coronavirus across Afghanistan, including doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and non-medical workers," Tawhid Shkuhmand, Ministry of Public Health deputy spokesperson, told Salaam Times May 14.
Profits over people
A number of countries -- including Spain, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Croatia and Turkey -- have complained about substandard or faulty medical products shipped from China. In some instances, the buyers terminated contracts because of the defective equipment.
Two million protective masks purchased by Finland turned out to be unsuitable for use in hospitals, the Finnish government said April 8.
Before that, the Dutch government recalled 600,000 masks out of a Chinese shipment of 1.3 million that did not meet quality standards.
Spain rejected thousands of rapid-testing kits sent by an unauthorised Chinese company after it found in April that they were unreliable.
During March alone, China exported 3.86 billion masks, 37.5 million pieces of protective clothing, 16,000 ventilators and 2.84 million COVID-19 testing kits, Chinese customs official Jin Hai said in early April, with orders to more than 50 countries.
"Chinese PPE, gloves and [diagnostic] kits were first sent to European countries, but they returned those items because of their poor quality," said Shakeb Zamiri, an economic analyst in Kabul. "Later, China sent these supplies to poor countries like Afghanistan."
"These supplies put the lives of doctors and health workers at risk while the coronavirus outbreak is on the rise in Afghanistan," he said.
Profits are the most important part of the Chinese business model, and Chinese traders have no moral principles in this respect, he added.
"China's benefiting from the coronavirus is proving to be fatal," Zamiri said. "Masks and PPE are widely sold in the market, where people are spending their money on substandard products, and this is terrible for poor Afghans."
A number of Afghan citizens who have visited COVID-19 specialty hospitals expressed concerns about the quality of medical supplies and PPE available.
"Three weeks ago, I went to the Afghan-Japan Hospital to test for the coronavirus," said Nawid, 34, a Kabul resident who requested the use of a pseudonym.
"I got my result after two days," he said. "Despite my negative result, the doctors said they were not certain about it because of the low-quality diagnostic kit."
"As I had most of the symptoms, I followed the doctors' instructions and quarantined myself at home for three weeks," he said. "I took the necessary medicines and ate certain foods as advised by a doctor who is also our relative, and it is by God's mercy that I'm well now."
Fariba Akbari, another resident of Kabul, said one of her relatives contracted the coronavirus and was admitted to a COVID-19 hospital in the capital.
"My cousin said that supplies at the hospital are inferior, and the doctors do not have enough of them," she said.
"It is clear to every Afghan that [Chinese] medical supplies and most Chinese products are deficient," she said. "But the difference is that such medical supplies put human lives at risk."
Reliable medical supplies are vital to combat the coronavirus pandemic and the quality of PPE must be taken seriously, said Abdurrahim Rahim, a former representative of Badghis Province in the Wolesi Jirga.
"Afghanistan cannot take action or make a complaint alone, but various countries should with one voice stop China from putting lives at risk," he said.