Rising toll leading to violence against medical professionals.
Members of medical staff at a quarantine ward at Al-Amal hospital in Najaf, Iraq. (Reuters)
BAGHDAD – Iraqi President Barham Salih asked Wednesday for international assistance to cope with the many crises facing Iraq amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite limited resources resulting from years of wars, blockades and violence, Iraq has implemented some measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Salih said in his pre-recorded address to the UN General Assembly. But the “journey has been long and arduous.”
Weak infrastructure in the face of rising case numbers is a constant challenge, Salih added.
“Developed nations must provide assistance to developing nations to create an environment to fight the pandemic and limit its harmful effects,” he said. “We pray to the almighty God that the next meeting can be held in a pandemic-free world.”
A severe drop in oil prices has compounded economic woes brought on by the pandemic, he said.
Iraqi authorities have lifted many lockdown measures, allowing restaurants and places of worship to reopen, but they have shut borders to foreign pilgrims ahead of Arba’een, a large Shia Muslim pilgrimage that normally draws millions to the holy city of Karbala in the south of the country.
Iraq has recorded several thousand new coronavirus infections every day for months, with its total now exceeding 333,000.
More than 8,000 people have died, a number that some doctors fear will rise sharply, putting frontline health care workers under huge pressure and in some cases in physical danger.
Earlier in August, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission warned that doctors continued to emigrate out of the country due to violence against them by patients’ families amid the pandemic.
The warning came after a hospital director in the southern Najaf province was severely beaten by family members of a coronavirus patient who had recently died from the virus.
Assaulting doctors and vandalising medical property that form the frontline against the coronavirus “in such an aggressive manner” is a grave violation of human rights, Fadel al-Gharrawi, a member of the rights commission, said of the incident.
“The repeat of assaults on medical staff require that the government must implement deterrent measures to limit this phenomena,” Gharrawi added.
Recently, footage showing a group of people assaulting Dr. Tareq Sheibani, director of al-Aml Hospital in Najaf who was accused of being culpable for the death of a coronavirus patient, went viral on social media.
Sheibani remembers little beyond cowering on the ground as a dozen relatives of a patient who had just died of COVID-19 beat him unconscious.
About two hours later, the 47-year-old doctor woke up in a different clinic with bruises all over his body.
“All the doctors are scared,” said Sheibani, speaking at his home in Kufa a few weeks after the August 28 attack. “Every time a patient dies, we all hold our breath.”
Sheibani filed a complaint with police, but said he had received threats from the people who assaulted him urging him to drop the case.
“They might attack me or my family,” Sheibani said, adding that he no longer left his house alone.
Doctors say the government has not taken tough enough action to protect medical workers from violence, which they faced for years even before the pandemic.
On September 19, the health ministry said in a statement that it would assign its legal division to file lawsuits against those who attacked health workers, as well as medics who fell short in treating patients.
Assaults on doctors and medical staff are widespread in Iraq, where many have been pursued by tribes to pay compensation to the families of dead patients or face possible revenge.
Such violence has made enforcing health safety guidelines within hospitals almost impossible, especially as tensions between families of sick patients and hospital staff run high.
During a recent visit to Al-Amal Hospital in Najaf , which is a coronavirus isolation centre, reporters saw relatives of COVID-19 patients coming in and out of the ward without wearing full protective gear as they are supposed to.
Some were only wearing surgical face masks.
Iraq is fighting the pandemic with a depleted force of doctors and nurses.
In 2018, it had just 2.1 nurses and midwives per thousand people, compared with Jordan’s 3.2 and Lebanon’s 3.7, according to official estimates. It had 0.83 doctors per thousand people, while neighbouring Jordan, for example, had 2.3.
There are also significant shortages of drugs, oxygen and vital medical equipment, the result of years of underspending.
Many young doctors say they are overworked, putting in 12-16 hour shifts every day, meaning they are more likely to make mistakes in prescriptions and treatment. Some take kickbacks for handing over certain drugs, physicians said.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has condemned the attacks against medical staff and promised to hold the perpetrators to account.
The attacks have increased in recent months, said Medical Association president Abdul Ameer Hussein. He said his association could not keep track of all of them, but they include verbal and physical abuse and even stabbings.
According to the Medical Association, at least 320 doctors have been killed since 2003, when US-led forces toppled longtime Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, ushering in years of sectarian violence and extremist insurgencies.
Thousands more have been kidnapped or threatened.
Doctors and human rights activists say the state is so weak that it cannot bring doctor’s assailants to justice, especially if they come from a powerful tribe or belong to a militia.
“The government can’t protect doctors from tribes. Doctors end up dropping the cases because they receive threats,” said Hussein, adding that he often asks tribal leaders to mediate when a doctor is being threatened.