Iraqis rally to help needy families as virus hits, economy falters

Only a few thousand people from a population of 40 million have been tested for COVID-19. (File/AFP)
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Updated 05 April 2020

Iraqis rally to help needy families as virus hits, economy falters

  • The ministry of health reported 56 coronavirus deaths
  • The World Bank says one in five Iraqis lives under the poverty line

BAGHDAD: On an abandoned sidewalk in Baghdad, under strict government curfew to contain the novel coronavirus, a handful of volunteers with masks and gloves make food packages for needy families.
“What we’re doing is a humanitarian duty toward society, and anyone who can afford it should do the same,” said Abu Hashim, an Iraqi businessman in his fifties packing non-perishable goods outside a lonely storefront in the Iraqi capital’s east.
The health ministry says COVID-19 has killed 56 Iraqis and infected more than 800 others. But many suspect the real numbers to be much higher, as only a few thousand people from a population of 40 million have been tested.
In a bid to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, authorities have imposed a countrywide lockdown, ordering schools and most shops shut.
While the government is still paying salaries and pensions to millions, Iraq’s modest private-sector economy has come to a grinding halt overnight.
Iraq is OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer, but is ranked among the 20 most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. The World Bank says one in five Iraqis lives under the poverty line.
Sensing that relying on authorities would be unwise, young activists, community figures and local religious leaders have come together to try to support those with no income.
Using donations to buy essentials, like lentils, beans, rice and sugar, they pack supplies in plastic bags, talk their way through checkpoints and distribute them across the city.
Mustafa Issa, a 31-year-old Iraqi Shiite Muslim who helps distribute food to more than 450 families, told AFP he felt bound by a religious duty to help.
“It’s not like when we were under embargo in the 1990s,” he said, referring to crippling international sanctions imposed on Iraq under former dictator Saddam Hussein that made even basic foodstuffs unavailable.
“Baghdad is full of food right now, but people can’t buy it. One construction worker we support has a family of eight, and suddenly has no income. Another man had sold his cooking gas canister to buy food. A third sold his phone,” he said.
In a society that deeply values abundance and generosity, particularly at the dinner table, some are too proud to admit they need help.
“One woman walked halfway across the city to ask for help at another mosque so no one from her own neighborhood would recognize her,” Issa said.
One government official told AFP that almost half the population could be food-poor by May, adding that authorities were studying options for subsidies.
The country imports most of its staples, including rice, meat and wheat. Officials say Iraq’s $60 billion in reserves would cover more than a year of food imports, but already prime minister-designate Adnan Zurfi on Saturday expressed worry that the government might have to cut public-sector wages.
Issa was not taking any chances.
“We don’t know when this crisis will end. It could go on until July. Some of us are storing goods for later,” he said.
“This is more dangerous than Daesh,” he added, referring to Daesh that swept through a third of Iraq in 2014.
That conflict further ravaged Iraq’s dilapidated medical infrastructure, and there are fears a spike in COVID-19 cases would overwhelm hospitals.
Iraq, which relies on oil revenues for more than 90 percent of its state budget, is also facing the lowest crude prices in more than a decade and a paralyzed political class unable to reach consensus over a new cabinet.
Some Iraqis are taking public health into their own hands.
Asaad Al-Saadi, 40, has turned his Baghdad home into a makeshift workshop, producing face masks to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
“I saw the pandemic was spreading quickly and the simplest ways to fight it weren’t available,” Saadi said.
He bought two sewing machines and now produces around 1,000 masks per day. They are distributed in packs of 10 to needy families.
Saadi is also considering making other kinds of protective gear for under-equipped health workers.
Such grassroots efforts have swept through the provincial capitals of the south, down to the oil-rich port city of Basra.
Some are led by Iraqi women, in a country that remains broadly conservative and where just 15 percent of working-age women are employed.
Free food, money discretely slipped to desperate Iraqis, landlords suspending rent payments — initiatives all independent of government or political directives.
Mohammad Jabboury, a farm owner in Iraq’s west organizing food distributions and urging landlords to lower rents, expressed a sense of obligation toward those less fortunate.
“It’s our duty to help those in need until God saves us from this pandemic,” he said.


Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

Updated 11 August 2020

Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

  • Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast
  • The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors

QARTABA, Lebanon: Three firefighters. One Lebanese family. The same restless wait. Rita Hitti has not slept a wink since the Beirut port blast, when her firefighting son, nephew and son-in-law went missing.
“In one piece or several, we want our sons back,” she told AFP from the Hitti family’s home in the mountain town of Qartaba, north of Beirut.
“We have been waiting for the remains for six days,” she added, dark circles under her eyes.
Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast that killed 160 people and wounded at least 6,000 others across town.
They were among the first rescuers at the scene. They have not been heard of since.
Near the entrance to their Qartaba home, the three men are praised as “heroes” in a huge banner unfurled over a wall.
The double exposure shot shows them in the foreground dressed sharply in suits.
In the background, the blast’s now-infamous pink plume rises above their heads as they try to douse a fire.
An eerie calm filled the stone-arched living room, where dozens of relatives and neighbors gathered around Rita, the mother of Najib Hitti.
The women were mum, the men whispered between themselves, the young shuffled in and out of the room, quietly.
Karlen, Rita’s daughter, looked among the most sombre, with her husband Charbel Karam, brother Najib and cousin Charbel all missing.
Sitting next to her mother on the couch, she fought back tears and did not say a single word.
The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors.
The health ministry has said the number of missing stands at less than 20, while the army announced it had lifted five corpses from beneath the rubble.
A large blaze was still ripping through the blast site when the Hittis and other relatives of port employees dashed to the disaster zone to check on their loved ones.
But they were stopped by security forces.
“I told them I would know my boys from their smell,” Rita said she told an officer who barred her from the site.
“Let me enter to search for them and when I whiff their smell I will know where they are,” the mother said she pleaded.
Ever since, her hopes have gradually dwindled, but her anger is boiling.
Lebanese authorities have pledged a swift investigation but the exact cause of the blast remains unclear.
Authorities say it was triggered by a fire of unknown origin that broke out in a port warehouse where a huge pile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate fertilizer had been left unsecured for years.
Whatever the cause of the fire was, the popular consensus is that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of officials in charge of the port as well those who have ruled Lebanon country for decades.
“We gave them heroes and they returned them to us as ‘martyrs’,” Rita said, scoffing at the label officials have used to brand blast casualties.
“What martyrs? What were they protecting? The noxious things (authorities) were hiding in the port?” she asked rhetorically.
“They are martyrs of treachery.”
George, father of Charbel Hitti, also rushed to the blast site to look for his son and relatives after the explosion.
“I started to scream their names: Najib, Charbel... I was like a mad man,” he told AFP.
“We waited until 6 in the morning the next day for clues to what happened,” he said.
“In the end, I started crying.”
He did manage, however, to get one piece of information from a port security official close to the family who was at the scene of the blaze when the firefighting team first arrived on August 4.
The security official had told him that the firefighters were trying to break open the door to the ammonium nitrate warehouse because they could not find the keys before the explosion ripped the whole place apart.
A week has since passed and George said hopes of finding the three men alive have faded.
Assuming they are dead, George said he now wants one thing: “We just want DNA test results that are compatible with those of Charbel, Najib and Charbel,” he said.
“Imagine. This is everything we now wish for.”