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Rising public anger over Iraq’s healthcare system after ward fire

Rising public anger over Iraq’s healthcare system after ward fire

The death toll from an overnight inferno in a Covid hospital ward in southern Iraq has risen to 64, amid rising anger and questions about the competence of the country’s health sector.

The blaze was the second in a coronavirus unit in the past three months. More than 80 people died in a Baghdad hospital in April. In both cases the fires were thought to have started after oxygen tanks ignited.

Angry residents in the city of Nasireyah torched two police vehicles and demanded accountability for family members who had died in the fire on Monday at the Al-Hussein teaching hospital. Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, claimed that corruption at the hospital, which was ravaged by flames, had also been a factor.

Failures of Iraq’s bloated and often inefficient public sector have often been highlighted by citizens who claim the state delivers little despite reaping huge revenues from oil production. Scenes of flames and smoke belching from the sanctuary of hospitals – twice in three months – have been a particularly visceral symbol of the government’s shortcomings.

The majority of the people killed on Monday evening were Covid-19 patients, although officials in the Dhi Qar province said that at least three health sector officials had also died. The hospital had stored large quantities of oxygen to treat Covid patients.

“There were no screams from inside,” said Haidar Hussein, 27, a local resident, who rushed to the hospital to try to help. “They were helpless. Those inside were already struggling to breathe and could not run from the fire.”

Another man, Mohammed Khalak, 31, said his aunt had died in the hospital. “We took her there to save her life, not to sacrifice her. What has this country become?”

Well-funded on paper, the health sector, like other institutions, has been hollowed out by graft at all levels of governance throughout the post invasion years, in which Iraq has been consistently rated by the Global Transparency Index as one of the most corrupt countries.

A resurgence in coronavirus cases, with the disease spreading widely in Iraq, has added to the strain, overwhelming already stretched facilities that have few means to deal with the pandemic. Iraq has recorded more than 1.4m Covid-19 cases, with at least 17,000 deaths.

After the fire in Baghdad in April Hassan al-Tamimi resigned from the post of health minister; on Tuesday angry protesters in Nasiriyah made further calls for senior resignations.

“This has become who we are,” said Suhail Zahra, a protester who had arrived frombeyond the city. “A country that suffers in silence. That must change.”


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