SEATTLE, Washington — On top of instability and high rates of poverty plaguing the region for decades, COVID-19 in Afghanistan has hit especially hard. Although the country has made substantial progress in improving its healthcare system in past years, Afghanistan remains largely unprepared to handle the pandemic. In response, an all-girls robotics team has designed a ventilator that can be made from car parts at a fraction of a standard ventilator’s cost.
COVID-19 in Afghanistan
Afghanistan has faced political instability for decades, exacerbating its economic difficulties. Today, Afghanistan has a 42% poverty rate, with 20% living just barely above the poverty line. While the country has made strides in improving its healthcare system, with life expectancy increasing from 52 to about 63 years in two decades, 23% of the population does not readily have access to healthcare services. The issue has been further compounded by COVID-19 in Afghanistan.
There have been nearly 70,000 cases of COVID-19 in Afghanistan. However, numbers are likely higher since due to limited testing. In fact, Afghanistan’s health minister has stated that there could be up to 10 million people infected.
In spite of these high numbers, the country lacks basic preventative measures. Many citizens and even public health officials wear their masks improperly, or do not wear a mask at all. Prevalent poverty and a lack of a proper welfare system leave many people unable to take hours off of work for personal safety. Even when experiencing symptoms, many Afghan citizens view hospitals as more risky than just waiting it out. Additionally, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health has been accused of embezzling millions of dollars while many medical doctors go unpaid and shipments of vital supplies mysteriously go missing.
For more extreme cases, such as for those with underlying conditions, there are only 800 ventilators across the country. Many will go unused because, oftentimes, hospital personnel have not been trained to use them.
The Afghan Dreamers is an award-winning all-girls teenage robotics team from the city of Herat. They gained international attention in 2017, when they were invited to the U.S.’s FIRST Global Challenge robotics competition, only to have their visas denied until supporters on social media successfully advocated for approval. When their supplies arrived in Afghanistan, they were withheld for three months, as customs officers refused to give robotics supplies to girls. Despite these challenges, the girls returned home bearing a silver medal for “courageous achievement.”
In March, the Afghan Dreamers began designing a low cost, hand-operated ventilator from a Toyota Corolla engine that could be used in emergency situations. Inspired by a design from MIT, the team spent four months engineering their final machine. The device costs roughly $700 to produce (compared to $20,000 for a traditional ventilator) and can run on battery power for up to 10 hours, making it a convenient and relatively cheap way to deliver emergency healthcare services.
Although the device has not been tested by health specialists yet, public officials welcomed the invention. According to the Health Ministry spokesman Akmal Samsor, the ventilator will be distributed to hospitals once approved, and its design will even be shared with the World Health Organization for further dissemination.
Innovating in the face of hardship
In spite of the many challenges the Afghan Dreamers have faced, they have been able to rise above their circumstances. Their recent design combats not only the effects of COVID-19 in Afghanistan but also the barriers that Afghan women in STEM face. Although Afghanistan has struggled in the recent pandemic, there is still hope that the country will overcome these difficulties. Thanks to this new invention, far more people will gain access to the help they need, and countless lives could be saved.
– Elizabeth Lee