Opium Demand Jumps as Desperate Afghan Villagers Seek Covid Cure
Ghulam Abdul processes raw opium at a mud-hut lab in Dawlatabad district, Afghanistan. (Photographer: Eltaf Najafizada/Bloomberg)

Opium Demand Jumps as Desperate Afghan Villagers Seek Covid Cure

In a remote Afghan village, Lal Mohammad says he is beating the coronavirus by consuming opium after the drug helped his relatives recover.

The 48-year-old taxi driver bought 250 grams of the drug four weeks ago from a Taliban-backed farmer who grows opium poppies once year in Qarchi Gak, an arid, war-beaten village in the north of the country. Mohammad puts a pea-sized lump of the sticky, dark brown substance under his tongue twice a day and lets it melt.

“It’s hard to believe that I survived the coronavirus after I started using the opium,” Mohammad said on July 1 in his mud-walled house about 300 miles north of the capital Kabul. “It took away the severe pain from my body and my fever has also gone.”

Opium Demand Jumps as Desperate Afghan Villagers Seek Covid Cure

Covid-19 is spreading rapidly in Afghanistan, and with no vaccine and scant medical resources people are turning to older remedies in the hopes of beating the pandemic. Sandwiched between Iran and Pakistan, which are also battling the spread of the disease, Afghanistan has recorded more than 34,000 confirmed cases and over 1,000 deaths among a population of nearly 39 million. But with only seven testing laboratories in a nation the size of France, the real figures may be much higher.

The government says opium is not a treatment for the virus and has tried to clamp down on its use. Authorities recently shut down the clinic of herbalist Hakim Alokozay in Kabul because he claimed to have developed a coronavirus vaccine from narcotics. Hundreds of people were queuing up at his shop each day to get treatment.

Opium Demand Jumps as Desperate Afghan Villagers Seek Covid Cure

“The opium can kill the pain but cannot treat coronavirus,” said Sayed Murtaza Akhlaqee, a senior physician at Basit Private Hospital in Kabul, which treats Covid-19 patients.  “The second thing is the virus can cause shortage of breath, making patients worry that they are dying, and opium calms them down. In any case, using opium without a doctor’s guidance isn’t helpful or legal.”

Kabul, by far the nation’s biggest city with more than 4 million people, has the most confirmed cases – at least 13,700, with around 300 deaths. Yet few people in the crowds that gather in markets such as Mandawee or Sarai-e Shamali are seen wearing masks or gloves. Schools are still shut, but as many as 10 people pack into the ubiquitous five-seater minivans, shoulder-to-shoulder, as they go about their daily business, too close to poverty to heed official lockdowns or social distancing. Many consider the pandemic is simply a matter of fate.

Opium Demand Jumps as Desperate Afghan Villagers Seek Covid Cure

“I don’t believe in the virus,” said Munir Shah, 34, a shopkeeper who doesn’t wear a mask and who recovered from the illness. “It all depends on the will of God.”  

Government-run hospitals dedicated to Covid-19 patients in Kabul and other cities are suffering from shortages of oxygen, medicine and beds, despite tens of millions of dollars provided by the government and international donors to contain the virus. Some people in the capital buy balloons filled with oxygen from local markets to try to save the lives of relatives admitted to hospital or being treated at home for serious respiratory issues.

As the number of cases rose, the health ministry last month ordered private hospitals in Kabul to carry out testing in addition to government clinics. The virus has swept through the presidential palace, infecting dozens of staff in the office of President Ashraf Ghani, who has started chairing meetings via videoconference. This month, Mohammad Yousuf Ghazanfar, Special Envoy for Economic Development and Poverty Reduction and Ghani’s running mate in the 2019 elections, died in Turkey, the highest-profile Afghan victim of the virus.

Opium Demand Jumps as Desperate Afghan Villagers Seek Covid Cure

In Mohammad’s village, even basic services are not available. A tiny clinic with two staff and little equipment serves the village’s 250 families and it won’t allow anyone who may have the virus to enter.

Those patients need to take a partially paved road to the district center of Dawlatabad in Balkh province, where there are drugstores and better medical facilities. The road is lined with bombs planted by Taliban militants to ambush government forces.

Ambushes and Bombs

To get to hospital, villagers with Covid-19 need to travel 52 miles to the provincial capital of Mazar-e-Sharif, where the government has dedicated a single 200-bed hospital for virus-infected patients. The hospital serves 14 districts that are home to about a million people. Mohammad and his neighbors say no one from the village has tried to go there for treatment.

“First, we are not sure whether we will survive the Taliban ambushes and bombs on the highway,” said Mohammad’s cousin Qayom, who says he recovered from the virus after taking opium. “Almost all villagers use opium to kill pain and the coronavirus.”

Opium Demand Jumps as Desperate Afghan Villagers Seek Covid Cure

“Unfortunately, people use opium in some districts where the drug is cultivated or found in order to reduce pain,” Nezamuddin Jalil, head of the public health department of Mazar-e-Sharif, said via WhatsApp. “That’s not a therapy. It’s more harmful than beneficial as the drug can make people addicted in the long term.”

Opium comes from the sap in unripe poppy-seed pods. The sap dries into a brown latex that contains alkaloids which produce a host of narcotic and pharmaceutical drugs, including heroin, morphine and codeine. Records of opium cultivation go back more than 5,000 years and it was used as a painkiller by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Opium Demand Jumps as Desperate Afghan Villagers Seek Covid Cure

The advent of Covid-19 is making it a very lucrative business for Afghan opium farmers.

Ghulam Abdul, 45, who’s backed by the Taliban to grow opium, is one of the suppliers for Mohammad and others in Qarchi Gak and the surrounding villages. His remaining stock of 132 kilograms of dried opium latex sold out last week. The latex, a semi refined product, is selling in the village for as much as 7,000 Afghani ($91) per kg, 64% more than before the virus outbreak – serious money in a country where the average rural household earns only $148 a month.

“The coronavirus was a disaster for everyone except us as the virus has made our business quite lucrative,” said Abdul, who inherited his seven acres of poppy fields from his late father. “We also make morphine out of the opium poppy that can work as a great pain killer, which can also treat coronavirus.”

Backyard Laboratory

In a small mud hut, close to the fields, Abdul makes morphine in a makeshift laboratory, mixing the dried latex with boiling water in a bowl and cooking it with a gas stove to create a thick, sticky substance.

Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium producer, accounting for 87% of the global production, despite a $9 billion, two-decade effort by the U.S. to deter illegal production of the drug in the country.

While the area dedicated to opium poppies in the country declined by 28% in 2019 after two years of huge increases, production rose to 6,700 metric tones, from 5,550 tons thanks to favorable weather conditions, according to a report by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Opium Demand Jumps as Desperate Afghan Villagers Seek Covid Cure

The Taliban, who control or contest half of the country, get a 10% tax, or Oshr, for the opium from Abdul and other farmers in return for not destroying the crop and protecting them from government forces. The tax provides the insurgents with millions of dollars, according to the government.

It’s not their only incentive.

At the gate to Abdul’s laboratory, three armed Taliban militants are waiting to get some opium. They have been infected with the virus.

“Everyone here uses opium – the Taliban and ordinary people,” Abdul said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.