By Storay Karimi
HERAT, Afghanistan May 19 (Reuters) - More than 200 doctors and medical staff took part in protests in the western Afghan city of Herat on Tuesday, saying they had not been paid for three months while risking their lives to treat coronavirus patients.
Herat, war-torn Afghanistan's third largest city, has reported a high number of COVID-19 cases since March and its 10 government hospitals have grappled with shortages of testing equipment and protective gear.
"We have been risking our lives to save people, many doctors have been infected too. The government must at least respect us and pay (our salaries) on time," said Abdul Rauf Rahimi, a doctor in an intensive care unit allocated for COVID-19 cases.
Rahimi was among 78 doctors and over 110 medical staff who took part in the six-hour-long protest before returning to work, saying they did not want patients to suffer unduly.
Ahmad Tawhid Shukohmand, deputy spokesman for the health ministry, said he recognised doctors' ire over unpaid wages. "We are in dire need of doctors and health workers and in a few days their salaries will be paid. We are seriously working on this," he said, without giving a reason for the delay in payments.
The protest added to pressure on Afghanistan's fragile medical infrastructure just weeks after hundreds of doctors and healthcare staff tested positive for coronavirus in the capital Kabul, forcing many to self-isolate at home.
As of Tuesday, Afghanistan had confirmed 7,653 COVID-19 infections and 178 deaths from the respiratory disease.
The pandemic together with continuing fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban militants has worsened the health crisis in Afghanistan.
Last week unknown gunmen stormed a maternity ward in a private hospital in Kabul, killing at least 24 people, including newborns, mothers and nurses. (Additional reporting by Orooj Hakimi in Kabul Writing by Rupam Jain Editing by Mark Heinrich)