Pandemic threatens to spin out of control in Iraq's Nasiriyah

Collapse of Iraq’s public healthcare system is feared in case of unchecked increase of infections.
Monday 29/06/2020
Iraqi phlebotomists draw blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients at the blood bank of Iraq's southern city of Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar province. (AFP)
Iraqi phlebotomists draw blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients at the blood bank of Iraq's southern city of Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar province. (AFP)

NASIRIYAH, Iraq - The situation in Nasiriyah, the capital city of Dhi Qar governorate in southern Iraq, is close to total collapse due to a new outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the authorities’ failure to contain it and reassure residents.

On Sunday, Nasiriyah registered 16 COVID-19 related deaths and 282 new cases of infection, thus joining Baghdad, Sulaymaniyah, Amara and Najaf as the cities with the highest rates of infection in the country.

As of Saturday evening, there have been 1,660 COVID-19 related deaths and 43,262 infected cases in Iraq, 19,938 of which have recovered, according to official statistics from the Iraqi Ministry of Health. Nevertheless, people are extremely concerned about the likelihood of a total collapse of Iraq’s public healthcare system in case of an unchecked increase of the number of COVID-19 infections across the country.

Iraqi authorities have imposed a partial curfew in the country, allowing people to move freely during the day while observing virus prevention measures, like wearing face masks and avoiding crowds and gatherings.

It is difficult in the current context to pinpoint who to blame for the situation in Nasiriyah. As a matter of fact, all official departments in Nasiriyah and the Dhi Qar governorate are being targeted by angry protesters. Hundreds of protesters have moved from sit-in locations in public squares to gather near government buildings. In Dhi Qar, protesters fall in several groups, and it is sometimes difficult to find commonalities between them.

Since October 2019, Nasiriyah has witnessed the fiercest anti-government demonstrations next to Baghdad, against the resigned government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Protesters also faced up to pro-Iranian militias and succeeded to run them out of their headquarters. Hundreds of protesters were killed and wounded in these confrontations.

Health Ministry spokesman Saif Al-Badr said that family members accompanying their patients at Nasiriyah Hospital seized all the oxygen bottles at the hospital and took them home, thinking that they were the crucial treatment of the infection. The spokesman said that the severe shortage that ensued ultimately led to an increase in the number of deaths.

Badr explained that each patient coming to the hospital would usually have up to ten relatives accompanying him or her, often resulting in situations getting out of control at the hospital. He said that several doctors and medical personnel at Nasiriyah Hospital were assaulted by relatives of dead patients, highlighting the need to provide protection to health staff to allow them to carry out their duties.

The head of the Iraqi doctors' union, Abdul Amir al-Shammari, said on Sunday that 13 doctors have died from COVID-19 while 775 others have been infected.

MP Muhammad Shia'a al-Sudani warned of “a serious health disaster in the provinces, particularly in Dhi Qar and Maysan.”

Sudani expressed his concern about the “frequent reports and news about the extent of COVID-19 infections” and the “lack of supplies” in Nasiriyah, as well as the failure to protect the medical staff from being assaulted. “Despite all this, we did not see a serious effort from the government crisis cell in Baghdad commensurate with the importance of the events (in Nasiriyah),” he said.

Sudani invited Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi “to intervene in person through an urgent visit to the governorates of Dhi Qar and Maysan and dispatch members of the crisis cell there, or form a special cell for the governorates experiencing an acute crisis in this field,” stressing the need to “overcome the obstacles that have caused the situation to deteriorate and get out of hand, as well as allow health workers to exercise their functions without interference.”

"But this won’t be possible “until the state is able to re-establish security, impose its authority, and apply the law,” Sudani added.

For his part, former MP Mohamed Lakash accused the prime minister of ignoring the health situation in Nasiriyah. "The governorate of Dhi Qar has been living in a state of chaos for over nine months now. All of its infrastructure has been destroyed, including the health institutions,” Lakash said, adding that “some devious currents, remnants of the Ba'ath gangs, organised crime gangs, and new jokers supported by foreign intelligence services have all contributed to bringing down the religious, political and social systems in this province.”

Since October, Islamic parties and militias affiliated with Iran have used all of the terminology mentioned by Lakash to describe the demonstrators.

“Dhi Qar Governorate is facing genocide due to the spread of COVID-19 among its citizens and after the isolation wards in the hospitals were filled to the brim with infected patients,” said Lakash, pointing out that there are even “greater numbers” of infected people self-isolating at home, some of whom are in critical conditions.

Lakash called on Kadhimi to “travel to Dhi Qar Governorate, declare a state of emergency in the governorate, hand over the security file to the Ministry of Defence and restore the authority of the state there, as well as restore social peace which has been missing for the past nine months.” He also called for the creation of “a joint crisis cell between the federal and local governments to confront the COVID-19 pandemic and harness all available means of the Ministry of Health to help the health angels who are in the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19 in the governorate.”