Health Situation in Iraq Further Deteriorates

With a health care system that was lacking at the best of times, Iraq has stood as one of the most vulnerable countries since Covid-19 hit, and cases have recently skyrocketed to become among the highest in the region. Scores of stories tell of the woes suffered by both health care workers and patients under the pandemic, but among the most recent, and perhaps the most striking, is that of Mohammed Kareem. Kareem said he had been handcuffed to his wife Mona’s bed, shouting for help when she died of Covid-19 complications, having discovered earlier that her oxygen tank was empty. Speaking to the Kurdish news website Rudaw on 14 July, he said he had been handcuffed after starting a fight with a staff member at a hospital in the northern city of Kirkuk. “Nobody comes to care for the patients; oxygen and treatment are traded inside the hospital,” Kareem told the website, noting that a doctor had instructed him to tend to his wife and ensure that she always had a supply of oxygen, which he had to purchase himself. Such accounts lay bare the toll that Covid-19 has taken on Iraq’s already ailing healthcare system as the country struggles to contain its swelling number of cases and deaths in view of the severe economic toll the pandemic has taken.

What measures have been taken?

Iraq appeared to have slowed down its Covid-19 peak by imposing a full lockdown quite early on, against the backdrop of the risk posed by neighbouring Iran which quickly became a hotspot of the pandemic. But since easing restrictions, cases have continued to skyrocket, with one of the highest death rates in the region.

In the time since a nationwide lockdown was lifted in mid-June, different provinces across the country have gone in and out of lockdown in sporadic attempts to contain surges there, though this has done little to dent the overwhelming rise in infections. Despite warning in late June that a full lockdown could be re-imposed, the Supreme Committee for Health and National Safety decided against this and amended the timings for curfew instead.

In the meantime, all gatherings are banned, many of the country’s recreational activities have been brought to a standstill and people are required to wear masks in public places, amid repeated parliamentary warnings of a “catastrophe” if precautionary measures are flouted. However, despite calls to the contrary, Iraq announced on 16 July that it will be fully lifting its Covid-19 curfew after Eid al-Adha, which is expected to fall in late July and early August. A full lockdown will nonetheless be imposed for the three days of Eid al-Adha, as announced on 22 July. The easing of restrictions after Eid comes in spite of Iraq having recorded an average upwards of 2,000 cases in the days leading up to it, having peaked at 2,848 new cases on 10 July.

What challenges do health workers face?

The decision to end curfew comes despite calls from medical professionals to re-impose a full nationwide lockdown in view of existing pressures due to a major shortage in medical supplies and oxygen. In late June, the head of the Iraqi doctors’ union, Abdul Ameer al-Shammari, called for a full lockdown and “imposing strict health measures for no less than three consecutive weeks”. He warned that otherwise, the country will see the death of large numbers of patients and the collapse of health services, resulting in “chaos”, the Baghdad-based website Shafaq reported at the time.

Iraqi media have reported consistently over the past weeks about the shortage in oxygen as hospitals across the country struggle to accommodate the rising numbers of Covid-19 patients in need of acute support. The Iraqi authorities have sought to address this by importing and receiving large amounts of oxygen and medical supplies as aid from other countries, but the situation remains untenable. An AFP report in late June said the Iraqi authorities have struggled to pay doctors in the public sector for two months as the country balks under the weight of dramatic drops in oil prices and other economic repercussions from Covid-19.

In the lead-up to the pandemic, doctors had already been protesting and striking, demanding unpaid salaries and medical supplies, in conjunction with nationwide protests that had broken out in October 2019. According to the website Baghdad Today, the representative body for Iraqi doctors announced in February that a general strike would take place in March to demand “the rights of patients before doctors and the provision of medications and medical supplies to save the lives of our people in hospitals”. By March, however, the country would already find itself in the grips of the pandemic. Even more recently, the doctors’ union threatened on 17 July to strike over the decision to continue the suspension of services at private clinics whilst opening malls and commercial centres to open, according to Rudaw.

In a series of vox pops by the Beirut-based, Iraqi channel Al-Sumaria TV, those questioned almost unanimously predict the collapse of Iraq’s healthcare system under the pandemic. “Of course [it will collapse]. The healthcare systems in major countries have collapsed, like Italy and others. So Iraq, of course, it is a tired state and our health institutions are already suffering,” one man says.

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