Iraq has been living in a constant state of tension and instability for years, from the war against the Islamic State to the political and social crises that resulted in the protests of the last months of 2019. Now, it finds itself facing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the pandemic that enveloped the whole world in the suspension of the lockdown.
To date, the confirmed cases of coronavirus in Iraq are 2,818 and 110 are the deaths, alarming numbers if taking into consideration the context of the country. Iraqi public health system is severely short of resources and not suitable for responding to a large-scale medical emergency, in particular to the needs of those who live in camps – there are still 1.4 million internally displaced people across the country. According to estimations by the Ministry of Health, 20,000 Iraqi doctors have left since the 1990s, leaving few qualified health workers in the country. The war caused a strong weakening of the capacity for health intervention, with many hospitals and clinics destroyed or malfunctioning. The economic resources necessary for the restructuring of the system are limited, both in terms of supplies and medical personnel.
“People affected by COVID-19 could be many more than those officially declared,” says Pietro Caburrosso, program coordinator for INTERSOS in Iraq, “The swabs processed and available are limited and this means an incomplete knowledge of the real number of cases of infection, for this reason it is necessary to act on prevention as we are trying to do by supporting medical interventions in different areas of the territory”. INTERSOS has been operating in Iraq since 2016, and never leaving the country. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 emergency, we launched an intervention aimed at raising awareness of the virus among the most vulnerable people.
“There are three different areas of intervention says Pietro, “the camps, where humanitarian access is present as well as high militarization. Here COVID-19 risks are increasing the already high vulnerability of the people present. Then there are the remote or rural areas, difficult to reach like the Baa’j area, north-west of the country, where there are no services and the few health centers have been razed to the ground during the war. It takes up to an hour for children to walk to school from their isolated villages. Finally, there are the urban areas: here live many people who in recent years have left the camps for internally displaced persons to pour into the large cities such as Mosul. The risk of COVID-19 spreading is very high, the space between people is congested and prevention measures are scarce”.
INTERSOS medical teams work both in remote areas and in urban centers, where they also face the collateral consequences of COVID-19, such as an increase in gender-based violence and cases of violation of children’s rights.
Our team is offering technical training sessions for the prevention and treatment of the virus for medical staff at hospitals in the Governors of Ninawa and Kirkuk. A new project, funded by ECHO, began in May in the localities of Salam Al-Din and Ninawa (Baaj ‘and Tel Afar) to act effectively against the risk of spreading the epidemic. In total, 10 medical facilities are supported by INTERSOS. “People with COVID-19 symptoms will follow an isolation path for treatment in specially designed containers. The containers will be used to carry out pre-screening visits and prevent cases attributable to COVID-19 from coming into contact with other people and spreading any infection. We contributed to the construction of an “isolation room”, where people will wait for the result of the swab test to arrive from the only laboratories present throughout the country: one in Baghdad and the other in Erbil” Pietro explains.
With the restrictions on movements still in place across Iraq, the number of beneficiaries reachable with awareness raising activities has decreased. So INTERSOS has filled the gap through remote technical trainings. “The context in which we operate is not easy,” says Pietro, “We are facing a global emergency in a country that, if the contagions exponentially increase, would really risk to collapse.” In Iraq, on the whole territory, there are only 475 beds available in hospital facilities, so the consequences of an increase in contagion would be devastating for an already highly vulnerable population that has not yet overcome the trauma of the war.