COVID-19 BREAK­ING BACK OF IRAQ’S HEALTH SYS­TEM

▶ Bod­ies lie in the sun out­side Bagh­dad’s mor­tu­ar­ies while hos­pi­tals struggle to help those still alive

The National - News - - NEWS | CORONAVIRU­S - SINAN MAH­MOUD Bagh­dad

Un­der the scorch­ing heat of Iraq’s sum­mer sun, at least four bod­ies of Covid-19 vic­tims lay un­der sheets out­side a Bagh­dad hos­pi­tal morgue.

Near by, the doors of a sec­tion of the mor­tu­ary lay open, the cool­ing sys­tems in­side bro­ken. It has not dropped be­low 40°C in the past week in Bagh­dad.

“They are here from yes­ter­day un­der the sun,” said a man in a video shared on so­cial me­dia. Stand­ing out­side the mor­tu­ary of Al Kindi Hos­pi­tal, he cried as he un­cov­ered the body of his un­cle.

“The mor­tu­ary is full. We are wait­ing for a car to pick them up,” the man said.

The hos­pi­tal author­i­ties de­fend their de­ci­sion to keep the dead out­side the morgue, in­sist­ing there are con­cerns over bod­ies be­com­ing a source in­fec­tion, a claim re­jected by sci­en­tists. “We are in a cri­sis that forces us some­times to make de­ci­sions that evoke feel­ings and strong opin­ions,” Dr Salim Al Ba­hadli, di­rec­tor of Al Kindi Hos­pi­tal, said.

The re­cent surge in coro­n­avirus cases across the coun­try has put Iraq’s health­care sys­tem – dec­i­mated by decades of war, sanc­tions and cor­rup­tion – on the brink of col­lapse.

Run­down hos­pi­tals, many built be­tween the late 1970s and early 1980s, are over­flow­ing. Most medicine and med­i­cal sup­plies are only avail­able on the black mar­ket and med­i­cal staff are dy­ing be­cause of a lack of pro­tec­tive mea­sures.

Des­per­ate Iraqis are send­ing out ap­peals on so­cial me­dia seek­ing medicine, blood plasma and empty beds for loved ones suf­fer­ing the ef­fects of Covid-19.

One on­line video shows peo­ple scuf­fling over oxy­gen tanks out­side a hos­pi­tal.

“The sit­u­a­tion at many of Iraq’s hos­pi­tals de­te­ri­o­rated rapidly, as waves of new cases ex­posed their ca­pac­ity to cope with ex­tra­or­di­nary pres­sure and over­whelmed their over­worked and un­der-re­sourced staff,” said a report last month by En­abling Peace in Iraq (Epic), an Amer­i­can NGO that works in the coun­try. The re­search painted a grim pic­ture of how mis­man­age­ment of the coro­n­avirus out­break in Iraq threat­ens to buckle the health sys­tem.

Daily cases have in­creased rapidly since mid-May when author­i­ties eased stay-at-home re­stric­tions.

The num­ber of con­firmed cases on May 8 stood at 2,603. As of Wed­nes­day, it is 67,442. New daily cases have hov­ered around 2,000 since late June. So far, there have been 2,779 con­firmed deaths.

But, like with many coun­tries in the re­gion and around the world, lim­ited test­ing is prob­a­bly hid­ing the true scale of the pan­demic in Iraq. Epic said if the trend con­tin­ued, more than 2.8 mil­lion Iraqis could be in­fected in late July or Au­gust.

Ali Al Askari, 26, con­tracted Covid-19 in the lat­est wave of in­fec­tions. Last Thurs­day he rushed his par­ents and grand­mother – whose con­di­tion wors­ened – to the hos­pi­tal, while the rest of the fam­ily stayed home with mild symp­toms.

Ar­riv­ing at Al Hus­sein Hos­pi­tal in south­ern Iraq’s Nasiriyah, his grand­mother, in her 50s, could not walk in­side.

“But there was no stretcher,” Mr Al Askari told The Na­tional cough­ing. “There were no free beds and we had to lay her on the ground.” From there, they car­ried her – and a tank of oxy­gen – up the stairs to the iso­la­tion unit.

The next day, as her con­di­tion de­te­ri­o­rated, Mr Al Askari’s grand­mother was moved to an In­ten­sive Care Unit. But she died, wait­ing in the cor­ri­dor for a place.

Like other vic­tims, her body was kept at the morgue for sev­eral days to con­firm the cause of death be­fore be­ing re­leased for burial.

Author­i­ties have in­creased Covid-19 test­ing of bod­ies be­cause ru­mours of a fu­ture com­pen­sa­tion pack­age for vic­tims’ fam­i­lies has led to re­ports of false death cer­tifi­cates be­ing bought to cite coro­n­avirus as the cause.

Am­bu­lances or re­frig­er­ated trucks car­ry­ing piles of bod­ies ar­rive daily at Iraq’s largest ceme­tery in the south­ern city of Na­jaf. Con­voys take a spe­cial un­paved road to by­pass the city’s in­hab­ited ar­eas.

A 6,000-square-me­tre piece of land on the edge of Wadi Al Salam ceme­tery has been set aside for Covid-19 vic­tims.

Teams from the Shi­ite para­mil­i­tary Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion Forces forces re­ceive the dead and pre­pare the last rites.

At the start of the cri­sis, vol­un­teers from the Imam Ali Bri­gade said they were bury­ing up to five bod­ies a day.

That num­ber has jumped to be­tween 90 and 100 a day since late May, said its com­man­der Tahir Al Khaqani.

It’s a grim job. Some bod­ies de­com­pose by the time they reach the ceme­tery be­cause of hot weather and lim­ited cold stor­age.

“Oth­ers ar­rive wrapped only in blan­kets and sheets in­stead of body bags,” Mr Al Khaqani said.

Some fam­i­lies, he said, had been given the wrong body at the over­crowded hos­pi­tals.

Be­liev­ing the worst is still ahead, the bri­gade is train­ing more vol­un­teers to help its burial teams. A fourth site for the wash­ing of the bod­ies be­fore burial will be added soon.

Since his grand­mother’s death, most of Mr Al Askari’s fam­ily de­cided to con­tinue their treat­ment at home where they feel safer. But his grand­fa­ther took a turn for the worse and is now in the in­ten­sive care unit.

The hos­pi­tal said they could not pro­vide oxy­gen. The fam­ily are buy­ing it from the black mar­ket, pay­ing up to $8 for fre­quent re­fills – 17 times on Wed­nes­day alone.

“The sit­u­a­tion at the hos­pi­tal is tragic. The staff are ex­hausted and [there are] no ser­vices,” Mr Al Askari said. “It’s like a sink­ing boat.”

Des­per­ate Iraqis sent out ap­peals on so­cial me­dia seek­ing medicine, blood plasma and empty beds for their loved ones

EPA

Work­ers spray dis­in­fec­tant at Al Kindi Hos­pi­tal in Bagh­dad as Iraq bat­tles the Covid-19 pan­demic

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