COVID-19: Iraqi doctors near collapse; for Fr Paul, the situation is 'critical'

Front-line healthcare workers have to cope with the virus, equipment shortages, unpaid wages, and the risk of attacks from patients’ families. Some have to work 48-hour shifts. In Kurdistan hospitals, only coronavirus cases are treated. For one Chaldean priest, many sick people prefer to stay at home and avoid hospitals.


Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Celebrated worldwide for their fight against COVID-19, doctors and other healthcare workers in Iraq face, in addition to the virus, tough challenges that imperil their existence, such as unpaid wages, shortages of protective equipment, as well as verbal and physical threats (sometimes attacks) from the families of patients.

The “first line" of defence against the virus is weaker and weaker as the number of cases constantly rises. “We're collapsing," said Mohammed, a doctor at a COVID-19 ward in Baghdad who declined to use his full name to speak freely.

“I just can't work anymore. I can't even focus on the cases or the patients," he told to AFP at the end of a 48-hour shift. "I personally know 16 doctors who caught it over the last month," he lamented.

Iraq has officially reported more than 47,000 coronavirus cases, but the actual number could be far greater. The situation is critical, especially in high-risk areas, like refugee camps. So far, around 2,000 people have died, about a hundred in the last week alone.

In the autonomous Kurdish north, a surge in coronavirus infections has pushed the number of cases there to over 5,000 -- including at least 200 health workers -- and the death toll to more than 160.

Given precarious working conditions, medical staff at Kurdish hospitals said that they would no longer treat non-coronavirus cases.

Shevan Kurda, a 30-year-old doctor, is one of them. He has been working 10-hour shifts every day, but only COVID-19 patients. What is more, he is owed three months of wages from 2019 and was not paid in either April or May this year.

Making matters worse, whether in Kurdistan or in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, protective medical equipment is in short supply.

For example, the Al-Kindi Training Hospital distributed just five N95 masks to doctors each month. Some staff have been buying protective gear with their own with money, some from their US$ 750 monthly take-home pay.

Wael, a 26-year-old doctor from another hospital in the capital, reports his own psychological breakdown.

"Before corona, you could recuperate from the pressure of work by seeing friends and family. But now I go from an isolation ward at work to isolation in my room at home," he explained.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Fr Paul Thabit Mekko, head of the Christian community in Karamles, Nineveh plain (northern Iraq), notes that the situation is "critical" and that the number of cases is "increasing constantly", even though the number of “recoveries is outpacing the number of new cases.”

In Baghdad, “hospitals are in difficulty because there are few beds," and now "many new infected people do not even go to hospitals" because there is a rumour that "staying at home is better".  No one wants to run the risk of "being exposed to a greater viral charge”.

As the emergency accelerates, the Chaldean Church "is trying to help the neediest, by paying for medicines and food. In recent weeks, the Patriarchate has allocated funds and resources to parishes and individuals, to deal with this pandemic.”

Hospitals have reached their limit, Fr Paul explains. They “need more aid. There are reports that some hospitals in the south lack oxygen equipment. There is talk of a deal between Baghdad and Tehran to bring in Iranian doctors but it is patchy and confusing information.”

Meanwhile, the pandemic is getting worse across the Middle East and North Africa, reaching more than a million cases, according to the World Health Organisation.

As of 28 June, the region had 1,025,478 cases with 23,461 deaths. The situation especially worries experts, especially with respect with those countries caught up in bloody conflicts or internal strife like Syria, Yemen and Libya.

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