Through decades of conflict, Dr. Haidar Hantoush has watched wounded soldiers and civilians flood into Iraq’s emergency wards. But he’s never been so scared.
“Violence we can just about handle. Patients stream into hospitals for hours at a time – but you can see how many there are. You get a lull to prepare for the next round,” said Hantoush, public health director for southern province Dhi Qar.
“With coronavirus, there’s no safe place. We don’t know when the number of cases will explode…. Even the world’s best healthcare systems can’t cope.”
Doctors and nurses across Iraq have treated hundreds of thousands of victims during decades of civil war, violence, and sanctions while watching what was once one of the best healthcare systems in the Middle East crumble.
Now, they say Iraq may be singularly unprepared for the coronavirus.
Iraq has a porous border with Iran, the worst-hit Middle Eastern country so far. The Iraqi religious calendar is dotted with annual pilgrimages, some of the biggest mass gatherings on earth, which typically attract millions of worshippers.
And since last year, Iraq’s major cities have seen mass anti-government demonstrations that killed hundreds of people. State institutions are paralyzed by political deadlock after the government resigned and politicians failed to form a new one.
So far, Iraq has counted more than 450 coronavirus cases and 40 deaths, most of them in the past week. But doctors worry that those figures barely scratch the surface of an epidemic that may already be raging undetected across crowded cities.