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