The death toll from a fire that swept through a coronavirus ward of a hospital rose to 92 on Tuesday, the Iraqi state news agency reported, as distraught relatives buried loved ones and lashed out to the government for the second such disaster in the country in less than three months.
Health officials said dozens more were injured in the fire that broke out at al-Hussein University Hospital in Nasiriyah on Monday.
The tragedy shed light on what many have called widespread neglect and mismanagement in Iraqi hospitals after decades of war and sanctions.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called an emergency meeting and ordered the suspension and arrest of the director of health of Dhi Qar province, the director of the hospital and the head of the city’s civil defense . The government has also opened an investigation.
The Prime Minister called the disaster “a deep wound in the conscience of all Iraqis”.
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Two Iraqi health officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under the regulations, disputed the reported death toll, saying 88 had been killed.
At one point, authorities said the fire was caused by a short circuit. Another official said the fire broke out when an oxygen cylinder exploded. Officials were not authorized to speak to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity.
In April, at least 82 people – many of them coronavirus patients or their relatives – were killed in a fire at a Baghdad hospital that erupted when an oxygen tank exploded. The Iraqi Minister of Health has resigned following the disaster.
In the holy city of Najaf, the dead of Nassiriya were buried. Mourning families stood above the coffins of a mosque to say a final prayer.
Their tears were tinged with anger, with some saying the disaster could have been avoided. They blamed both the provincial government and the central government in Baghdad.
Ahmed Resan, who witnessed the blaze, said it started with smoke. “But everyone fled – the workers and even the police. A few minutes later there was an explosion,” he said. According to him, the firefighters arrived an hour later.
“The whole state system collapsed, and who paid the price? The people inside here. These people have paid the price, ”said Haidar al-Askari at the scene.
During the night, firefighters and rescuers – many of whom were holding flashlights and using blankets to quell small fires – searched the facility. At dawn, bodies covered with sheets could be seen lying on the ground outside the hospital. Distraught relatives searched for traces of loved ones among charred blankets and personal effects.
Ali Khalid, 20, a volunteer who rushed to the scene, said he found the bodies of two young girls entwined.
“As they must have been terrified, they died hugging,” he said.
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The ward, opened three months ago, had 70 beds in three large rooms. Major General Khalid Bohan, Iraqi Civil Defense Chief, said the building was constructed from cheap flammable materials.
Ali Karar, a cleaner at the hospital, said the ward only had four fire extinguishers and no fire alarm system. Fire trucks quickly ran out of water, he said.
Doctors have long complained about lax security in Iraqi hospitals, especially around oxygen cylinders, and describe institutions as time bombs.
Mac Skelton, a medical sociologist specializing in Iraq, said the chaos and neglect in Iraqi public hospitals since the US-led invasion in 2003 has created “toxic” mistrust between patients and doctors. .
Doctors in COVID-19 departments often say they avoid confronting the families of patients who mishandle oxygen tanks, lest they react violently, he said. “But families say they have legitimate fears of leaving the lives of their vulnerable loved ones to medical staff they see as underfunded, overworked and disinterested.”
Iraq is in the midst of another strong outbreak of COVID-19. New cases per day peaked at 9,000 last week. Iraq’s war-crippled health system has struggled to contain the virus. The country has recorded more than 17,000 deaths and 1.4 million confirmed cases.
Fear and widespread mistrust of the public health sector have prevented many people from seeking treatment in hospital.
Ali Abbas Salman, who rushed to evacuate his father with COVID-19 from the building after the fire, has vowed he will not bring the older man back to the hospital.
“He wants me to take him home. He said, ‘Better to die from the coronavirus than to be burnt alive,'” Salman said.
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The disaster is likely to stoke public discontent with the Iraqi political establishment ahead of the October election, said Marsin Alshammary, Iraq scholar at the Brookings Institution. Nassiriyah has been at the heart of past revolutions in Iraq.
“Considering all this atmosphere built around the city,” she said, “you can imagine that something as tragic as this event, where already vulnerable people were killed in an unnecessary accident, will create more anger in the audience. “
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