A. Situation analysis
Description of the disaster
A fire broke out on 13 July in the coronavirus ward of a hospital in southern Iraq killing at least 92 people, injured more than 110, left 20 missing, and affected around 270 others, according to health officials. Different statements were announced at the start of the fire, one referring to a short circuit, another referring to an oxygen cylinder explosion. The scene at the hospital was chaotic after the flames swept through the outbuildings of the Al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the southern city of Nasiriyah, which had been set up to isolate those affected by COVID-19. Patients were trapped inside while rescue teams struggled to reach in time. Meanwhile, anguished relatives slammed the government over the second such disaster within the past three months. The tragedy cast a spotlight on what many have decried as widespread negligence and mismanagement in Iraq’s hospitals after decades of war and imposed sanctions.
The Prime Minister of Iraq convened an emergency meeting and directed the authorities to open an investigation on the incident, the government also launched a time-bound investigation. The Prime Minister called the catastrophe - a deep wound in the consciousness of all Iraqis. On 13 July, the President of Iraq also mentioned the persistent mismanagement that undervalues the lives of Iraqis. The health ministry officials told the media that at least 20 bodies have been burned so badly that officials were using DNA tests to identify them. A tally that, when combined with the 72 bodies the ministry said were identified, would add up to the reported figure of 92.
Thirty-nine bodies exactly were handed over to the families by health hospital officials. Another 21 sets of badly burned remains had been sent to Baghdad to be identified through DNA. The Nasiriya morgue confirmed that 39 bodies have been identified and provided a list of names.
Overnight, firefighters and rescuers, many holding flashlights and using blankets to smother small fires searched through the ward. As dawn broke, bodies covered with sheets could be seen laid out on the ground outside the hospital. Distraught relatives traced their loved ones, searching through the debris of charred blankets and belongings inside the torched remains of the ward. Doctors have long complained of lax safety at Iraq’s hospitals, especially around oxygen cylinders, and have described the institutions as ticking bombs.
Doctors in COVID-19 wards often avoid confronting patients’ families who are mishandling oxygen tanks, for fear they will react violently. But families say that they have legitimate fears about leaving the lives of their vulnerable loved ones up to medical staff that they regard as under-resourced, overburdened, and disinterested. Iraq is in the midst of another severe COVID-19 surge. New cases per day peaked last week at 9,600. Iraq’s war-crippled health system has struggled to contain the virus. The country has recorded over 18,000 deaths and 1.5 million confirmed cases. Fear and widespread mistrust of the public health sector have kept many from seeking hospital care.