COVID-19 empties Iraq’s protest squares as government imposes lockdown, travel bans

Iraqis who have survived decades of sanctions, wars and poor medical services appear callous and indifferent to the virus calamity.
Sunday 29/03/2020
A protester outside a tent in Tahrir Square in Baghdad. (Oumayma Omar)
Still determined. A protester outside a tent in Tahrir Square in Baghdad. (Oumayma Omar)

BAGHDAD--Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which vibrated for months during mass anti-government protests, was silent, tents erected by protesters were mostly deserted and the city’s normally jammed streets looked empty as police checked the few motorists who ventured out.

Iraq’s government imposed a nationwide lockdown and banned all flights from the country’s airports as part of strict measures to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. At least 506 cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Iraq and 42 people have died, the Iraqi Health Ministry said.

Outside one of the few protest tents that were not abandoned in Tahrir Square, Hassan Abbas, 25, was cleaning and disinfecting his “Iraqiya” tent, wearing a face mask and gloves.

“It is cleaning time. Every morning, with colleagues, we spray the tents and the area around them in line with the precautionary measures to keep the virus away,” Abbas said. “We take out the covers, mattresses and pillows and place them in the sun, which is a good way to sterilise them, and then clean the interior of the tents with whatever disinfectant available.”

“The coronavirus has emptied the square. Many protesters who lived in the tents for weeks preferred to return home and confine themselves there, fearing infection. Others refrained from coming here but some are refusing to quit the square until demands are fulfilled,” he said.

Abbas and other protesters try to keep spirits up by chanting revolutionary slogans that show their commitment to revive the protest movement once the coronavirus crisis is declared over.

“We are persisting in our sit-in regardless of sacrifices. In the meantime, we are very cautious and take the necessary measures to check the spread of the virus,” Abbas said. “We have set up control posts to check those entering the square and to make sure that they are following safety and precautionary instructions which are mandatory on all of us.”

He said protesters were relying on donations to buy disinfectants and sterilising materials and equipment, such as masks and gloves.

In Karrada, a shopping area in central Baghdad, police stopped pedestrians to check reasons for violating the curfew.

Food shops, pharmacies, medical centres and other essential institutions have been excluded from closure. Shoppers entering Al Warda market have their temperature checked and are asked to wear masks and gloves before entering the big store.

“I believe that the measures taken to confront the coronavirus are not sufficient and are not being strictly applied,” said Kazem Kanani, who, with his wife, was buying food. “In certain shops that are allowed to operate under the curfew people are not following the safety instructions. There is no disinfecting material at the entrance, no gloves and no masks.

“Shop owners should be held accountable as well as the customers.”

“Precaution is a duty. The virus has devastated big countries, including Iran, which is Iraq’s neighbour. Every day we hear the number of victims and patients are increasing and this is largely due to negligence and laxity in the application of precautionary measures,” Kanani said.

Iraqis who have survived decades of sanctions, wars and poor medical services appear callous and indifferent to the virus calamity.

“Iraqis do not fear anything anymore after all the calamities and misfortunes that they have been through in the past decades. They are used to not living an easy life,” Kanani’s wife, Iman, said.

“Nonetheless, after all we have suffered a lot and we deserve to have a dignified and safe life free from diseases and this can only be achieved through prevention and precaution.”

Most of Iraq’s 18 provinces imposed local curfews before the nationwide lockdown. Schools, universities, restaurants and other gathering places were closed.

Iraq first shut its 1,500km border with Iran about a month ago and deployed troops to enforce the closure. It had feared a potential influx of cases from Iran, where hundreds have died after contracting the coronavirus-related respiratory illness.

Authorities have struggled to enforce curfews.

On March 21, thousands of Shia pilgrims turned out in Baghdad and other cities in southern Iraq to commemorate the anniversary of the death of a revered Muslim imam, Musa al-Kadhim. There were reports of as many as 400,000 people walking to his shrine north of Baghdad.

Iraqi Health Minister Jaafar Allawi expressed fear that a wider coronavirus outbreak would overwhelm the country’s health system, which already faces shortages in equipment, medicine and staff after decades of conflict and little investment by national authorities.