8:43 AM CT on 4/19/2020
(AP) On most mornings, Somaya Farooqi and four other teen-age girls pile into her dad’s car and head to a mechanic’s workshop. They use back roads to skirt police checkpoints set up to enforce a lockdown in their city of Herat, one of Afghanistan’s hot spots of the coronavirus pandemic.
The members of Afghanistan’s prize-winning girls' robotics team say they’re on a life-saving mission — to build a breathing machine from used car parts and help their war-stricken country battle the virus.
“If we even save one life with our device, we will be proud,” said Farooqi, 17.
Afghanistan faces the pandemic nearly empty-handed. It has only 400 ventilators for a population of more than 36.6 million. So far, it has reported just over 900 coronavirus cases, including 30 deaths, but the actual number is suspected to be much higher since test kits are in short supply.
Herat province in western Afghanistan is one of the nation’s hot spots because of proximity to Iran, the region’s epicenter of the outbreak.
This has spurred Farooqi and her team members, ages 14 to 17, to help come up with a solution.
On a typical morning, Farooqi’s father collects the girls from their homes and drives them to the team's office in Herat, zigzagging through side streets to skirt checkpoints. From there, another car takes them to a mechanic’s workshop on the outskirts of the city.
In Herat, residents are only permitted to leave their homes for urgent needs. The robotics team has a limited number of special permits for cars.
So far, Farooqi’s father hasn’t been able to get one, but the girls are in a hurry. “We are concerned about security driving out of the city but there is no other option, we have to try to save people’s lives,” Farooqi said.
At the workshop, the team is experimenting with two different designs, including an open-source blueprint from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The parts being used include the motor of a Toyota windshield wiper, batteries and sets of bag valve masks, or manual oxygen pumps. A group of mechanics helps them build the frame of a ventilator.
The ventilator model, once completed, would then be sent to the Health Ministry for testing, initially on animals, said spokesman Wahid Mayar.
Farooqi, who was just 14 years old when she participated in the first World Robot Olympiad in the U.S., in 2017, said she and her team members hope to make a contribution.
“Afghans should be helping Afghanistan in this pandemic,” she said. “We should not wait for others.”