If the official count is correct, then Iraq would have the highest mortality rate in the world.
The country is currently registering over 150 cases of patients infected with the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and 11 deaths.
By Mustafa Habib, in Baghdad.
But nobody really believes those numbers. Abd al-Rahman al-Aboudi, a doctor at a hospital in Bagdad, is among the doubters.
“There’s a big problem in Iraq and that’s related to the culture around health,” al-Aboudi told Al Menasa. A lot of locals fear the idea of quarantine and are stoic, preferring to stay with their families at home, even if they get some symptoms, he says. “Without knowing it though, they are endangering the lives of their relatives, especially older relatives. They’re being selfish without knowing it.”
So they often don’t come to hospital until it’s too late, al-Aboudi says, referring to a case he was told about by a medical colleague in a southern hospital: A middle-aged woman arrived with symptoms that were already so severe that she died shortly after her arrival at the clinic.
Some say that if you go to the hospital to have a cut stitched, you may come back in a casket.
There are other aspects of Iraqi culture that make it hard to deal with the pandemic. Some of these are logistical, others are societal.
In fact, the majority of locals in Iraq still seem to think that the virus is nothing to panic about. Only a minority feel panicked as they watch the measures being taken against the virus in places like Europe.
The Iraqi government has formed a crisis committee, including representatives from the ministries of health, education and environment, to try and deal with the crisis. The committee met to discuss the topic before holding a press conference, and notes from the preliminary meeting were leaked to the press. In these, one of the ministers dismisses the topic: “It’s nonsense anyway, so let’s just get this over with a quickly read a statement.”
For instance, it is thought that many of the Iraqis who have the virus do so because of the spread of COVID-19 in neighbouring Iran – the incidence of infection in Iran is unknown but is considered to be very high; evidence of mass graves being dug there turned up late last week. And rumour has it that the virus began to spread in Iraq because those who returned from Iran, bribed Iraqi border guards to be allowed back into the country without health checks.
There’s also a sort of shame around the illness. When HIV-AIDS was a problem, nobody wanted to reveal that they might have been infected because of the shame that even the hint of sexual activity might bring upon them and their family’s honour. The same sort of embarrassment and shame has unfortunately become associated with COVID-19.
Another doctor at a Baghdad hospital, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, told Al Menasa that a patient came to hospital last week with signs of pneumonia. After he was examined and tested, it turned out that he had caught COVID-19. “But when we informed the patient and his family, they went crazy,” the doctor reports. “They insulted is and threatened to resort to tribal law [a traditional system of law that is administered by tribal elders and often uses ‘an eye for an eye’ as its basis]. They said we had insulted them. So we couldn’t quarantine the patient, nor could we include his details as part of the official record on the coronavirus.”
There have also been incidences where patients who were told they were infected, simply ran out of the hospital after the diagnosis.
A source inside the federal Ministry of Health stressed that statistics on the rate of infection and the number of deaths are official and well-documented. However, he added, hospitals and clinics cannot do anything when the infected patients insist on leaving or on concealing their condition.
Iraq actually has a set of fairly severe punishments, including prison time of up to three years, for those who conceal a serious diseases that threatens the lives of others. Even if you accidentally infect somebody with a life-threatening disease, you can be accused of manslaughter.
Part of the problem may also have to do with the way that Iraqis perceive their health system. Some say that if you go to the hospital to have a cut stitched, you may come back in a casket.
“Frankly, everyone knows how bad hospitals in our country are,” one Baghdad local, Arkan Jassim, told Al Menasa. “They’re very crowded and the hygiene is bad. Most of the medical staff are inexperienced. We know this because those who are any good at all leave the public sector and open their own private clinics.” Whether the private clinics in the country will also treat the virus is unclear.