In Iraq, politically sanctioned corruption proves fatal
On 12 July a fire broke out in the Covid ward of Al Hussein Hospital in the southern city of Nasiriyah, Iraq killing 93 people. This was the second fire to break out in one of the country's Covid wards in just three months. In April, Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad was similarly set ablaze, killing 82 people and injuring 100 others.
While the fires are thought to have been caused by oxygen cylinder explosions, the root causes of these tragedies lie in widespread political corruption which has been largely responsible for the rapid deterioration of the country's health infrastructure since 2003.
According to figures by the World Health Organization, there have been over 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 once again on the rise. However, widespread distrust of the health system and the political leaders at its helm has meant that Iraqis have been reluctant to admit their loved ones to hospital. Instead, those who can afford it have tended to self-treat at home, privately sourcing oxygen cylinders and other equipment.
"Widespread distrust of the health system and the political leaders at its helm has meant that Iraqis have been reluctant to admit their loved ones to hospital"
Those who have been forced to rely on the health service have found hospitals to be largely underequipped and understaffed, meaning that relatives have had to attend to patients in the absence of doctors and nurses. This has compromised vital health and safety safeguards.
What's more, rules for procuring medications are complicated, forcing families to either travel abroad to receive care or to procure medicines via illegal means. Medical professionals, who have the skills and education to work abroad, have been leaving the country in large numbers. As a consequence, the right to receive adequate health care is largely the preserve of the rich in Iraq.
Against this backdrop, when the fire broke out in Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital there was no fire protection system in place and cheap flammable building materials enabled it to spread rapidly. In Nasiriyah, the scene was disturbingly similar.
Iraq's old, poorly-maintained hospitals are "time bombs" for patients, an official in the prime minister's office has told The New Arab's Arabic-language service, days after a deadly fire ripped through a Covid isolation unithttps://t.co/I61HsPe89Q— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 16, 2021
The hospital, which had been opened by Prime Minister Mustafa Al Khadimi several months earlier, was not fitted with fire extinguishers, flammable building materials seemed to have been used, and when those who were still alive were transferred to ambulances, there was no oxygen left. In both cases, rescue operations were undertaken by relatives and people who happened to be nearby, as opposed to any government-sponsored search and rescue team.
Politically sanctioned corruption
The fires in Al Hussein and Ibn Al-Khatib hospitals are symptomatic of the larger issue of systemic political corruption in Iraq. This has allowed the same political elites that were empowered by the US and its allies in 2003 to hold on to the reins of government for over 18 years, without providing even the most basic of services to their citizens.
The deterioration of public services in Iraq can be traced back to the Iran-Iraq war when spending on public goods was already being cut. This deficit was later exacerbated by the most comprehensive sanctions programme to be placed on any country in history, making it difficult to procure medicines and equipment from abroad or to provide comprehensive training to medical professionals.
Following the implementation of the Muhasasa Al Ta'ifia or the ethno-sectarian apportionment system in 2003, the health system began to deteriorate even further.
"The right to receive adequate health care is largely the preserve of the rich in Iraq"
This new political system, which was supposed to ensure rights and representation for all, has actually meant that after every election cabinet positions and civil service jobs are divided between the dominant ethno-sectarian political parties. These same parties then appoint their most loyal civil servants to key positions within the ministries they gain. In turn, they use their positions to embezzle public funds and ensure that they end up in party coffers.
A recent Chatham House report revealed that senior civil service positions have become so lucrative that in recent election negotiations, parties opted to obtain these posts over cabinet positions as means of ensuring that public funds go back into 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 both fires Al Khadimi promised reforms and to hold those responsible to account. In the aftermath of the Baghdad fire, the Sadrist-backed health minister Hassan Al Tammimi was suspended and eventually forced to resign. In addition, an investigation was allegedly launched looking at the causes of the fire.
Following the tragedy in July, it was reported that arrest warrants were issued against 13 people, including Nassriyah's health chief Saddam Sahib Al Taweel and the director of Al Hussein Hospital. Another investigation committee was formed in order to ascertain what happened.
Since the beginning of his premiership, Al Khadimi has ordered one investigation after the other every time tragedy has struck. But so far, as the fire in Al Hussein Hospital demonstrates, they have yielded no substantive results.
In addition, it's well known that the Sadrists have controlled the Ministry of Health since at least 2005, and that it is staffed by loyalists to Shia militia leader Moqtada Al Sadr. However, in a televised address Al Khadimi recently came to their defence, arguing that the health minister is in no way affiliated with the Sadrists.
While Al Khadimi has presented himself as an independent candidate, his position is largely dependent on backing from the Sadrists who hold the largest bloc in government. This begs the question of how willing and able he is to hold those responsible for the tragedies in the Ibn Al-Khatib and Al Hussein hospitals to account.
For political parties, the lives of the citizens that they supposedly represent are worth very little. Iraq has been in a state of protracted crisis since 2003, with the political system seemingly incapable of doing anything more than crisis management. And even that seems too generous a description. This is a far cry from the peace and stability that Iraqis have long been promised and so deserve.
Taif Alkhudary is an Iraqi-British journalist and research assistant at the LSE Middle East Centre, where she works on the post-2003 political system in Iraq.
Follow her on Twitter: @ALKTaif
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.