Iraq’s Response Headed for a Dire Turn

A spike in COVID-19 cases in Iraq spurred the health ministry to warn of “dire consequences” if citizens continue to flout prevention measures, Al Jazeera reports

  • Iraq recorded the highest number of new cases—8,331 within a 24-hour period yesterday—since it began record-keeping early in the pandemic.

  • Officials blamed citizens for the surge, calling adherence to restrictions “almost non-existent in most regions of Iraq,” with masks rare and large social gatherings like funerals and weddings still common.

But a Physicians for Human Rights report out this week documents how Iraq’s health system—battered by decades of conflict, sanctions, corruption, and neglect—was set up for failure: 

  • Just 1.3 hospital beds for every 1,000 Iraqis; public hospitals have a long waiting list
  • A depleted health workforce:; remaining workers are overworked and exhausted 
  • Frustrated patients and families take out their anger on health workers; physical and verbal assaults on health workers have escalated during the pandemic

Disturbing videos on social media document terrible conditions—hospital bathrooms with no running water, and staff unable to provide care due to the lack of PPE, oxygen, and other medical equipment.
And, while the government is blaming citizens for the current case surge, its heavy-handed response early in the pandemic eroded trust and fueled stigma against people with the virus, as PHR details: 

  • Security forces accompanied health workers sent to “apprehend” infected people, seeming to criminalize them
  • Quarantining people who tested positive in medical facilities that lacked essential supplies
  •  Quarantining men and women awaiting test results together, creating a sense of shame—driving many to hide their symptoms and avoid quarantine

Iraq could turn around its response, PHR suggests, by amping up investment in health, strengthening legal protections, providing better training and support for health workers, and improving public health communication strategies.

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