In Iraq, deadly coronavirus terrifies even doctors hardened by conflict

An Iraqi soldier checks the temperature of an officer in Baghdad during a curfew imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease. (Reuters)
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Updated 28 March 2020

In Iraq, deadly coronavirus terrifies even doctors hardened by conflict

  • The UN praised Iraq’s early measures in closing borders last month but has urged respect for the curfew

BADGHDAD: 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 health care 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 health care 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 disease (COVID-19) 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.
“There are many unrecorded cases. People aren’t getting tested or taking it seriously,” Hantoush said.
Loudspeakers on mosques in Baghdad blast out government guidelines daily urging people to stay at home and get tested if they think they are ill. A curfew is in place until April 11. Borders are shut and international flights halted.

With coronavirus, there’s no safe place. We don’t know when the number of cases will explode ... Even the world’s best health care systems can’t cope.

Dr. Haidar Hantoush, Public health director

But getting the message across is difficult in a country with deep distrust of the authorities. Tribes have sometimes refused to allow women with symptoms to be isolated because they do not want them to be alone in hospitals, Hantoush said.
Thousands of Iraqis participated in the most recent of Iraq’s major pilgrimages, to the shrine of a Shiite Imam in Baghdad, where they crowded in defiance of the curfew.
“We’re now asking pilgrims to self-isolate for 14 days,” said Dr. Laith Jubr, 30, who works at a Baghdad ward testing suspected coronavirus cases.
The hospital had three deaths from the virus in the last week, he said, and several staff tested positive. Some people showing symptoms refused to be tested because they did not want to spend time in isolation.
“If this gets bigger it could be beyond our control. We could have 1,000 cases next week. There’s a lack of ventilators and other equipment — maybe 10 ventilators at our hospital.”
Jubr said many Iraqis were nonchalant because they thought they had “seen it all” through years of war.
“This is dangerous. We’re facing a hidden enemy that requires not just doctors but the whole population to combat it.”
Security forces deployed on Friday to Baghdad’s densely populated Sadr City district, home to millions including many pilgrims, to enforce the curfew, a statement said.
The UN praised Iraq’s early measures in closing borders last month but has urged respect for the curfew.
One Baghdad doctor said a sharp rise in cases is imminent.
“We’re bracing for what happens in the next two weeks. And we can’t cope,” he said.


US ‘disappointed’ by Turkey mosque move on Hagia Sophia

People, some wearing face masks, pray outside the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul on July 10, 2020 as they gather to celebrate after a top Turkish court revoked the sixth-century Hagia Sophia's status as a museum, clearing the way for it to be turned back into a mosque. (AFP)
Updated 12 July 2020

US ‘disappointed’ by Turkey mosque move on Hagia Sophia

  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has chipped away at the Muslim-majority country’s secularism, announced Muslim prayers on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site

WASHINGTON: The US said it was “disappointed” by Turkey’s decision to turn the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque and urged equal access for all visitors.
“We are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.
“We understand the Turkish government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all,” she said on Friday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has chipped away at the Muslim-majority country’s secularism, announced Muslim prayers on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
A magnet for tourists worldwide, the Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Erdogan’s announcement came after the cancellation of a decision under modern Turkey’s secularizing founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.

We understand the Turkish government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all.

Morgan Ortagus, State Department spokeswoman

Erdogan went ahead despite an open appeal to the NATO ally by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an evangelical Christian who frequently speaks about religious freedom.
In a statement last week, Pompeo called the museum status an “exemplar” of Turkey’s “commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history” of the country and said a change risked “diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building.”
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden also said on Friday he deeply regretted Turkey’s decision.
Biden called on Erdogan to reverse it “and instead keep this treasured place in its current status as a museum, ensuring equal access for all.”