Opinion: The two deadly fires that recently killed hundreds of people in Iraqi hospitals were not a coincidence, but the consequence of widespread corruption and years of neglect, writes Taif Alkhudary.
The deadly fire at the Covid isolation ward at Al-Hussein hospital was the second major hospital fire in Iraq in three months [Getty]
On July 12, a fire broke out in the Covid ward at Al Hussein Hospital in the southern city of Nasiriyah, Iraq, killing 93 people. It was the second fire to break out in one of the country’s Covid services in just three months. In April, the Ibn Al-Khatib hospital in Baghdad was also set on fire, killing 82 people and injuring 100 others.
While the fires are believed to have been caused by explosions of oxygen cylinders, the root causes of these tragedies lie in widespread political corruption which is largely responsible for the rapid deterioration of the country’s health infrastructure since 2003.
According to figures from the World Health Organization, there have been more than 1.5 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Iraq and nearly 18,000 deaths. With the arrival of the Delta variant, cases in the country are on the rise again. However, widespread mistrust of the health care system and the political leaders at its head has made Iraqis reluctant to admit loved ones to hospital. Instead, those who can afford it tend to self-medicate at home, procuring oxygen cylinders and other equipment in private.
“Widespread mistrust of the health system and the political leaders at its head has made Iraqis reluctant to admit loved ones to hospital”
Those who were forced to depend on health services found that hospitals were grossly under-equipped and understaffed, meaning loved ones had to look after patients in the absence of doctors and nurses. . This compromised vital health and safety guarantees.
In addition, the rules for the supply of drugs are complicated, forcing families to either travel abroad for treatment or to obtain drugs through illegal means. Health professionals, who have the skills and training to work abroad, are leaving the country in large numbers. As a result, the right to adequate health care is largely the preserve of the wealthy in Iraq.
Against this background, when the fire broke out at Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital, no fire protection system was in place and cheap flammable building materials allowed it to spread rapidly. In Nasiriyah, the scene was eerily similar.
Poorly maintained old Iraqi hospitals are ‘ticking time bombs’ for patients, official in the prime minister’s office at the New Arab language service said, days after deadly fire ripped through isolation unit by Covidhttps: //t.co/ I61HsPe89Q
– The New Arabic (@The_NewArab) July 16, 2021
The hospital, which had been opened by Prime Minister Mustafa Al Khadimi several months earlier, was not equipped with fire extinguishers, flammable building materials appeared to have been used, and when those who were still alive were transferred in ambulances there was no more oxygen. . In both cases, the rescue operations were undertaken by relatives and people who were nearby, as opposed to any government-sponsored search and rescue team.
Politically sanctioned corruption
The fires at Al Hussein and Ibn Al-Khatib hospitals are symptomatic of the larger problem of systemic political corruption in Iraq. This allowed the same political elites that were empowered by the United States and its allies in 2003 to hold the reins of government for over 18 years, without even providing the most basic services to their citizens.
The deterioration of public services in Iraq dates back to the Iran-Iraq war, when spending on public goods was already reduced. This deficit was then exacerbated by the most comprehensive sanctions program ever imposed on a country in history, making it difficult to buy drugs and equipment abroad or to fully train health professionals.
Following the establishment of Muhasasa Al Ta’ifia or the ethno-sectarian distribution system in 2003, the health system began to deteriorate even further.
“The right to adequate health care is largely the prerogative of the wealthy in Iraq”
This new political system, which was supposed to guarantee rights and representation for all, has in effect meant that after each election, ministerial positions and civil service jobs are distributed among the dominant ethno-sectarian political parties. These same parties then appoint their most loyal officials to key positions within the ministries they win. In turn, they use their positions to embezzle public funds and make sure they end up in party coffers.
A recent Chatham House report found that senior civil service positions have become so lucrative that in recent election negotiations parties opted for these positions over cabinet positions in order to ensure that public funds return in their pockets. This means that instead of funding vital public infrastructure such as health services, political parties use public money to fund their own activities and interests.
Al Khadimi’s response
After the two fires, Al Khadimi promised reforms and to hold those responsible to account. In the aftermath of the Baghdad fire, the Minister of Health supported by Sadriste Hassan Al Tammimi was suspended and finally forced to resign. In addition, an investigation was reportedly opened to determine the causes of the fire.
Following the July tragedy, it was reported that arrest warrants had been issued for 13 people, including Nassriyah’s health chief Saddam Sahib Al Taweel and the director of Al Hussein hospital. Another committee of inquiry was formed to determine what happened.
Since the start of his tenure, Al Khadimi has ordered one investigation after another whenever tragedy strikes. But so far, as the Al Hussein hospital fire demonstrates, they have not yielded any substantial results.
In addition, it is well known that the Sadrists have controlled the Ministry of Health since at least 2005 and that it is made up of followers of Shiite militia leader Moqtada Al Sadr. However, in a televised address, Al Khadimi recently came to his defense, arguing that the Minister of Health is in no way affiliated with the Sadrists.
While Al Khadimi has presented himself as an independent candidate, his position depends largely on the support of the Sadrists who hold the largest bloc in the government. This raises the question of how willing and able he is to hold those responsible for the tragedies at Ibn Al-Khatib and Al Hussein to account.
For political parties, the lives of the citizens they are supposed to represent are worth very little. Iraq has been in a prolonged state of crisis since 2003, with the political system seemingly incapable of doing anything other than crisis management. And even that seems too generous a description. We are a long way from the peace and stability long promised to the Iraqis and which they therefore deserve.
Taif Alkhudary is an Iraqi-British journalist and research assistant at LSE Middle East Center, where she works on the post-2003 political system in Iraq.
Follow her on Twitter: @ALKTaif
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.