The Afghan herbalist who claims to have a cure for COVID-19

KABUL (Al Jazeera): Mohammad Zaman travelled 335 km (208 miles) passing through Taliban checkpoints, bandits and long stretches of unpaved roads to reach Kabul for a few vials of a liquid he believes will cure COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Zaman claimed he was cured of COVID-19 last month after he consumed the liquid substance provided by a self-proclaimed herbalist, Hakim Alokozai, who is based in the Afghan capital.

The 50-year-old came to Kabul from his home province of Kunduz with 12 other people with hopes of delivering the substance to hundreds of people still suffering from the disease that has killed more than 800,000 people worldwide.

“I was sick for more than a month; I could barely breathe. Within 10 days of using the liquid all the symptoms were gone,” he said, as he downed a glass of black tea with three drops of the substance.

Like many other Afghans across the country, Zaman and his family have suffered from what they believed to be COVID-19 without going to hospital, initially turning to a cocktail of painkillers, fruit and cold medicines to treat themselves.

“We tried everything, nothing worked until we took this,” he told Al Jazeera.

The creator of the so-called herbal medicine, Alokozai, who is from the southern province of Kandahar, said Zaman is a clear example of how his liquid, which has never gone through official clinical trials, cured what he claims is more than five million people across the country. “Everyone we would give it to would take it to 50, 100 or even more people in their communities,” he said of his claim of having treated millions. He has no proof of his claim, though.

“The only people who died from COVID-19 in Afghanistan are the ones who went to the hospitals,” Alokozai said of the 1,409 fatalities the government has documented so far.

Dilapidated health infrastructure

The official number of infections stands at nearly 40,000 cases across the country, but experts say the number is likely to be much higher. People have generally avoided going to both government-run and private hospitals in the country, fearing that overcrowding and a lack of proper sanitation will only make them sicker.

In the initial months of the outbreak, there were only a handful of facilities capable of properly diagnosing the illness in each province, but by mid-June, the Ministry of Public Health allowed all private institutions to procure COVID-19 testing kits.

This was seen as a way of alleviating the pressure on government-run hospitals, which could provide up to 3,500 beds for COVID-19 patients in a country of 37 million.

Last month, Afghanistan’s Lead Ombudsperson, Ghizaal Haress, said the country had 372 ventilators and, in many provinces, hospital staff lack proper training in their use.

That same month, the health ministry released results from a 9,500-person survey it conducted across the country that says up to 10 million people may have contracted and recovered from the coronavirus.

Lack of institutional help in a country known for its dilapidated health infrastructure worsened by more than two decades of war means Afghans have been forced to approach Alokozai, who health officials say is nothing more than a snake-oil salesman.

Arrest warrant

In June, the health ministry sought Alokozai’s arrest after tests conducted by a government-run lab established that his concoction is a combination of opium, papaverine, codeine, morphine and some herbs.

At a news conference, the acting Minister of Public Health, Ahmad Jawad Osmani, said Alokozai’s so-called “treatment” was nothing more than a mix of locally-produced narcotics and that use of it could lead to increased addiction rates in a country where more than three million people suffer from drug problems.

Masooma Jafari, deputy spokesman at the Ministry of Public Health, said the ministry unequivocally rejected Alokozai’s claims.

“There is no treatment for COVID-19 and his mixture cannot prevent the illness,” said Jafari, before calling on relevant security bodies to arrest him and ensure he is no longer able to distribute the substance.

Alokozai, who currently lives in Kabul, has so far evaded arrest. His concoction is still distributed at no cost in the capital by people including the followers of two armed leaders turned politicians Gulbuddin and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.

“I have committed no crime. I would be happy for them to arrest me, let them try,” Alokozai said of the outstanding warrant for his arrest over distributing an unproven treatment.

Alokozai has called on authorities to test the people he has treated and see if they still exhibit symptoms.

“I’m not trying to build a high-rise or even a house, all I want is to make Afghanistan better,” he told Al Jazeera. Alokozai’s pedigree, as a 62-year-old herbalist who says he received no formal training and has practised for more than 40 years, has raised further doubts about the efficacy of his treatment.

He claims to have developed treatments for everything from influenza to even HIV and various forms of cancer. Despite the questions about his methods, he has a large following.

Inadequate healthcare

In May, when the health ministry ordered a halt to all of Alokozai’s COVID-19 related activities, hundreds of people staged an hours-long demonstration and blocked a major road outside a clinic in Kabul delivering the treatment.

His description of how he came up with the substance he has used to cure other illnesses that exhibit similar symptoms as the coronavirus – influenza, throat infections, various gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, loss of appetite – recalls the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

“Like all my other treatments, it came to me in a state between dreaming and being lucid. My treatments come to me like a poet, it’s all inspiration,” he told Al Jazeera.

Alokozai’s claims have proven particularly troublesome in a nation like Afghanistan, which still suffers from an inadequate healthcare system.

The World Bank estimates it has only three doctors for every 10,000 people. The United States, by contrast, has 26 doctors per 10,000 people.

Last month, at one West Kabul distribution centre, dozens of people from three separate provinces lined up to take vials of the treatment to their home communities.

Ilham, a 24-year-old Kabul resident who assists at one of the distribution centres, said there have been days where 500 to 600 people have come from various parts of the country. He alone has sent the mixture to 100 homes in his native province of Kapisa.

Alokozai’s treatment has even divided families in the capital, where the health ministry says 53 percent of the more than five million population has contracted COVID-19.

Mohammad Kakar, a government employee whose 10-member household is aged from six years old to their forties, swears by the substance.

“It’s what saved my family, if we didn’t take it, we’d all be dead by now,” said Kakar, whose family also avoided treatment in Kabul’s “dirty” and overcrowded hospitals.

But a close relative of Kakar baulks at the claim. “We took it, all it did was make each one of us sicker,” Pari Popal, the mother-in-law of Kakar’s sister, told Al Jazeera.

With educational institutions, salons, restaurants and even wedding halls reopening in recent weeks, Alokozai says now is the time to for his alleged “vaccine” to become pervasive.

He says he is willing to deliver the drops, taken with tea three times over 36 hours, to students and government workers as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. “Everywhere I go, I hand it out. I believe in my treatment, that’s why I hand out for free,” he says in defiance of the outstanding arrest warrant.