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Iraq’s health system at risk: the struggle to fight COVID-19 and save lives

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The COVID-19 pandemic, which for the first few months seemed to mysteriously spare Iraq’s exposed population, is now hitting the country of 39 million and its under-resourced health system hard. The main cause has been poor compliance with social distancing policies by many Iraqis who haven’t taken the pandemic seriously or prefer to risk disease rather than suffer the economic costs of extended lock-down. Meanwhile, poor policies and poor conditions at hospitals are causing many of them to spread the virus rather than prevent new cases.

Case growth has become exponential since mid-May. The second half of May coincided with the end of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday—major social occasions during which Iraqis are accustomed to shopping, attending large gatherings at mosques and concert halls, and visiting friends and relatives. As early as June 1, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that there were “widespread anecdotal reports of crowded public spaces across Iraq—including markets and shopping malls.” Iraq’s Health Minister pleaded with Iraqis to take the outbreak seriously and stay home due to the “critical situation” in the country. The director of Iraq’s Ministry of Health in Baghdad voiced concern that poor compliance with preventive measures threatened to overwhelm the national health care system and exceed its hospital bed capacity. During this period, confirmed cases increased twelve fold, from just under 3,200 on May 15 to 36,700 on June 24. Among the latest victims of the outbreak was Ahmed Radhi, Iraq’s beloved soccer legend who was a pillar of Iraq’s national team and famously scored the country’s only World Cup goal in the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico. Simple data analysis of the figures released by the Ministry shows accelerating spread of the disease. The sharpest increase occurred from June 3-5, when Iraq saw the largest daily jumps, exactly two weeks after the Eid holiday. That rapid increase in new cases prompted Iraq’s top cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to urge Iraqis to observe social distancing and comply with the instructions of health authorities. In his message, Sistani reminded Iraqis that the country’s weak health care system can’t provide enough care for the “increasing numbers of patients who have overwhelmed the hospitals.”