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News Brief: Gunfire At Kabul Airport, Afghanistan Evacuations, COVID Surge

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tens of thousands of people desperate to leave Kabul one week ago are now in safety.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: A U.S.-led evacuation picked up speed over the weekend, but thousands at the Kabul airport or scattered across the country are still stranded in a volatile situation. And that includes a firefight at the edges of the airport.

INSKEEP: That's where we begin our coverage with Jane Ferguson of the "PBS NewsHour," who is at the Kabul airport. Jane, welcome.

JANE FERGUSON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: What happened in this firefight?

FERGUSON: What we're getting through now with bits of information is that it's believed that there was - it's been reported that there's been a sniper attack on essentially the - what's the remnants of the Afghan security forces. Now, the Afghan national security forces, of course, collapsed last Sunday within hours of President Ashraf Ghani abandoning the country and the Taliban taking over. There is still, however, a small residual force at the airport of the more elite commanders who are helping to sort of man gates and try to organize people in and out. And one of them was killed. And then there was an exchange of fire. It's not clear who that exchange of fire was with.

INSKEEP: And memorable to think about simply because it shows how much chaos a single individual could cause in this situation, I suppose.

FERGUSON: Absolutely. You have thousands of people out there, panicked, kettled in between walls and, you know, in the heat. You have Taliban gunmen and commanders standing on walls, walking up and down, manning checkpoints within just a few yards of NATO forces. You have no real way of securing the area. You know, obviously, the Taliban have said that they are going to cooperate with this operation. And so far, they roughly, generally have been. But first of all, the Taliban is often a disparate and sometimes divided group. But beyond that, there are many, many other armed groups operating and working within Afghanistan at the moment. There's plenty out there who would want to be spoilers of this evacuation and who would want to take advantage of having so many people and Western soldiers in the street.

INSKEEP: What is it like out in Kabul on the other side of those Taliban checkpoints that surround the airport where you're at?

FERGUSON: Outside in town, in the city center, it's much, much calmer. Those of us who are at the airport can't get out there, in part because some of those checkpoints won't allow Westerners to leave the airport and go through the checkpoints and into town. I think from their perspective, they want Westerners going in one direction and one direction only, and that is out of the country. So inside town, what we're hearing from my colleagues is that it's calm. Businesses are reopening. The Taliban are trying to maintain a semblance of order. It's very important for them. I mean, they're branding is all law and order. It has been for years. So they're trying to show themselves as being capable of controlling the city.

However, in recent days, they have violently put down protests - flag protests where people have said, we want to continue to fly the traditional flag of Afghanistan. So they've shown themselves to not have too much tolerance for any kind of public displays of opposition. However, the other big talking factor at the moment in the rest of the city is the sort of looming economic crisis. So we have, basically, massive food insecurity in the country. The currency is devaluing. People are struggling to be able to afford food. So that's going to be probably the next thing people in the city are going to have to be trying to face and trying to recover from.

INSKEEP: I guess American aid is cut off, and international aid generally is in question at this point.

FERGUSON: That's the big question. The Taliban want the international aid to stay. They now have inherited a country that they have to run. They have tens of millions of people looking to them, saying, we're relying on you. And they're very well aware of that. But it's still not clear if the U.N. will be able to operate across the country. Can agent - aid agencies work in a Taliban-run country?

INSKEEP: Jane Ferguson of "PBS NewsHour," thanks for your reporting in Kabul.

FERGUSON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Now, the 28,000 or so people who've made it out of Kabul so far face an uncertain future.

FADEL: Military jets carried them out of Afghanistan to other countries, and they still face transport to third countries. For many who are Afghan citizens, their next destination is unknown. The U.S. is rounding up commercial airliners to carry them to those third countries.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence, who once served as NPR's Kabul bureau chief, is covering that part of the story. Quil, good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. So 28,000 out, according to President Biden yesterday - how many remain?

LAWRENCE: That's not clear. There were 10 to 15,000 U.S. citizens in Kabul. There are also tens of thousands of Afghans who are applying or have already received special immigrant visas. Those are people who helped U.S. troops, interpreters. There are tens of thousands more women leaders, journalists, members of civil society who the U.S. said that they would like to help get out. They fear reprisals and persecution by the Taliban. The president has activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which means that several American airline companies will loan the military 18 planes for transporting these people out of Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: How are those planes going to be used?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. As you say, they're not landing in Kabul airport. They're going to be helping with the third countries that the U.S. military is evacuating these people to around the Gulf. So President Biden actually stressed that in his speech yesterday, that these Afghans will be taken to third countries, where they'll be vetted and pass, you know, strict security background checks. He seemed to be defending it against fears that have maybe been stoked by some right-wing talk show hosts that these Afghans are somehow a threat, even though many of them are people who fought alongside the U.S., saving American lives on the battlefield.

INSKEEP: Now, they're being moved around the world. I guess it's a kind of instant diaspora here. They may end up in a number of different countries, and a lot of them want to end up in the United States. Does President Biden think this evacuation can be done by the end of the month as he previously had pledged?

LAWRENCE: Well, he kind of dodged on that question. The end of the month is fast approaching. And there are still, you know, as you heard from Jane just now, tens of thousands of people trying to get into the airport, trying to get out. He said that, so far, the Taliban has not been seeking trouble with the U.S. and has been letting, as she said, people pass through on their way to the airport. But it's been very stop and start. There are gates at the airport closing. Suddenly the airport was shut down because of the security threat. And it's not clear also how the Taliban will react if Biden says they're staying longer. There was one Taliban spokesman who gave an interview with Sky News today saying that that would cause a reaction, but there was no ultimatum on either side.

INSKEEP: How is President Biden continuing to defend this much-criticized withdrawal?

LAWRENCE: I mean, he said it's been time to end this war - no longer an American interest worth risking American lives. But he said it would be untidy no matter when the U.S. left.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started, when we began - would have been true if we had started a month ago or a month from now. There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss of heartbreaking images you see on television.

LAWRENCE: But he did sidestep the question of why the U.S. seemed so unprepared for the rapid arrival of the Taliban in Kabul and the evaporation of the government the U.S. spent 20 years building.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence, thanks.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: In this country, the delta variant of the coronavirus is overwhelming hospitals across the Sunbelt.

FADEL: The number of daily deaths from COVID-19 across the country has doubled in recent weeks, and the virus continues to circulate widely. Most new cases have one thing in common. They're happening in people who did not get a vaccine.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey is covering this story. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How bad is it?

AUBREY: Cases hit a new high Friday. About 157,000 infections were reported nationwide, and deaths are climbing. A month ago, there were about 300 deaths a day. Now about 750 people on average are dying each day from COVID. I spoke to an emergency room doctor in the Orlando, Fla., area, Dr. Andy Little. He works for AdventHealth. He described this scene at his hospital over the weekend.

ANDY LITTLE: You know, our hospitals are full, our ICUs are full, and our emergency departments are overflowing with patients that are boarded, meaning that they should be admitted to the hospital. But because of lack of beds upstairs, they're hanging out in the emergency room.

AUBREY: Which is clearly not ideal because they can't get the level of care that's given in the ICU.

INSKEEP: How many of those patients overwhelming the hospitals are unvaccinated?

AUBREY: More than 90%, according to the CDC. And Dr. Little says many patients are regretful when he talks to them about it.

LITTLE: Probably a third of the patients will say, is there a way I can get the vaccine now? And then we have the discussion that, you know, that isn't how vaccines work. And they are overwhelmingly upset. They're upset knowing that this was preventable, that if they had just gotten their shot, maybe this wouldn't be as bad; maybe they wouldn't have to stay in the hospital.

AUBREY: He says the treatments have shifted some compared to last year. His ER tries not to intubate people so early, given the risks of mechanical ventilation. And they do have several therapies that can help and are helping, including antiviral drugs. Some hospitals are giving more monoclonal antibodies. These are for people who are not too sick yet. But these drugs are not authorized for young children.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about them because, we should remember, while there are plenty of adults who could get the vaccine and are choosing not to do so, children under 12 cannot. What's happening with them?

AUBREY: That's right. And more than 120,000 cases were reported in a single week earlier this month in kids. Now, most kids do get mild illness, but it is tough for health care providers right now, Steve, who are treating more seriously ill kids. I spoke to pediatric infectious disease doctor Charlotte Hobbs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

CHARLOTTE HOBBS: Right now, we are indeed full to capacity, and we've been having serial emergency meetings. And for the children who are admitted to the intensive care unit, the majority of those children are, right now, on ventilatory support. So we are seeing more and more children who actually were previously healthy coming in with severe disease.

INSKEEP: This has got to be stressful for parents.

AUBREY: Absolutely. I mean, one thing that has struck me over the last couple of days talking to doctors who are also parents is their level of concern right now. Here's Dr. Little again.

LITTLE: You know, my kids started back at school here in Florida last week. And I will tell you, my biggest fear now is one of my kids contracting it because we are seeing - kids getting COVID in this wave are significantly sicker. That includes hospitalizations and just across the board.

AUBREY: And that's why pediatricians are strongly backing universal masking in schools to help keep kids safer.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.