Iraq’s Deadly Hospitals

James Denselow
James Denselow

This week a suicide bomber killed at least 35 people and wounded dozens in a crowded market in Iraq’s capital Baghdad, the eve of the Eid al-Adha festival. Bombings such as these are rarer than in previous years, but the market has been targeted multiple times and the attack was a reminder that whilst violence in Iraq is down it has by no means disappeared. Hospitals

Meanwhile, earlier this month 92 people died after a fire swept through the coronavirus ward at an Iraqi hospital. More than 100 were injured in the blaze at al Hussein Teaching Hospital in the southern city of Nasiryah. The fire is the second in the country to be blamed on an exploding oxygen tank, after 82 people died at a hospital in April.

The deaths sparked protests and the arrests of civil defence and hospital management but ultimately is a reminder that when the brightest fire of violence conflict ceases to burn, it leaves a legacy of poor infrastructure and battered human capital that is ripe for the negligence and mismanagement that was linked to the recent incidents.

After April’s deadly fire in the capital, started by an oxygen tank, Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi resigned. The pandemic has severely strained Iraq’s health service, already suffering after years of war, neglect and corruption. Iraq has reported more than 17,000 deaths and recorded 1.4 million infections from coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Hospitals

Dealing with a global pandemic with a health care system that has had to deal with decades of human conflict is of course incredibly difficult. What is more Iraq’s new freedoms mean that when accidents such as those in the recent fires occur, video clips of burning wards and desperate firefighters have gone viral further angering the population as to events that may have been repressed and silenced in the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

The particularly awful nature of events highlighted these challenges to the future Iraqi state far and wide. It was described as “a crime against patients exhausted by Covid-19” and emergency service officials said many patients died when they were taken off oxygen machines to be evacuated, while others were suffocated by smoke. Iraq’s hospitals are understandably trying to get hold of as much oxygen as they can. Covid infections in Iraq have surged to record highs in a third wave and Doctors are going online to plea for donations of medicine and bottled oxygen, and relatives are taking to social media to find hospital beds for their stricken loved ones.  Hospitals

Stockpiling oxygen only makes sense if it can be stored safely, and the two tragic fires have highlighted the risks in pursuing this policy. Indeed, 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. Yet protests and the subsequent sacking or arresting of officials linked to the hospitals only scratches at the surface of the problem.

Iraq’s parliament speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi tweeted that the blaze was “clear proof of the failure to protect Iraqi lives”. Behind the hospital fires this has been a tough summer for the country that has also featured temperatures rising above 120 degrees at a time when the government is failing to provide the electricity needed for people to cope. Many Iraqis see government corruption and mismanagement as the root of their suffering. There is of course politics thriving in every corner of these issues. For instance, the Kurdistan Region was quick to deliver medical aid to Iraq’s Nasiriyah city following the fire. Hospitals

Faith in the government and Iraq’s nascent democracy has haemorrhaged over the last decades as displayed by the numbers turning out to vote. If the state can’t protect its citizens from bombs nor run hospitals as places of life rather than death, then it’s not hard to understand that the golden thread of legitimacy between government and governed is being stretched to the limit. As the third Covid wave washes across Iraq’s healthcare facilities pressure on hospitals to be able to provide oxygen safely will be a matter of life and death. What’s more it will be a key litmus test for the Government to prove its most basic competency. levant


by: James Denselow

James Denselow,