Despite close to 100,000 infections and almost 4,000 deaths, there are still Iraqis who don’t believe the virus exists.
By Mustafa Habib
“You’re crazy. You really believe there is a coronavirus?” Khaled Laibi, a taxi driver, called out as he drove past a group of locals wearing masks. “It’s just a big lie to disrupt people’s lives and allow a curfew.”
Laibi’s own mask hangs from his rear view mirror. But, he says, that’s just there because some passengers wont ride in his cab unless he’s wearing it. “It’s a lie and I don’t believe in it,” he repeats, adding that most of his customers don’t wear masks either.
Iraq is still subject to a partial curfew during the day and that is keeping people home. Baghdad, with 8 million inhabitants, many of whom live closely together, has been the worst affected area in the country.
Mostly it seems the lack of belief in Covid-19 and lack of respect for pandemic hygiene comes from the fact that, for years, the Iraqi government has been promising all manner of things – jobs, electricity, better services – and none of those promises have been fulfilled. So it should come as no surprise that many Iraqis now see the virus as just another lie from their government.
It’s also cultural, according to Majid Naseef, who owns a clothing store in the upmarket Dora neighbourhood in Baghdad. “Iraqis are just not able to comply with the safety measures,” he complains. “If I don’t shake hands with my friends and kiss them on the cheek, they feel insulted.”
The markets around his store are still crowded with people. Many of them don’t wear masks properly, tucking them under their chins and freely exchanging hugs, kisses and handshakes with those they meet in the stores.
It’s also almost impossible to keep the correct distance, Naseef continues. “Mostly the shops here are small and it would be almost impossible to make our customers enter one at a time.”
Iraq was already suffering an economic crisis and this will obviously only get worse thanks to the lockdown. If they’re not getting money from their own government, either as pensioners or government employees, then many Iraqis work in their own small businesses. Often these locals depend on what they earn daily and their income is severely curtailed during the curfew. As taxi driver Laibi says, “we don’t care about the virus. We care about how to feed our families.”
Administrative corruption is another major problem in Iraq and the health sector is far from immune to this. The doctors and nurses working on infected patients certainly feel it and there have been deaths among hospital personnel.
“At the beginning of the pandemic we had full personal protective equipment and it was adequate,” says Qais al-Rubaie, a doctor at one of the Baghdad hospitals where coronavirus patients are being taken. “But then later on, we realized that the outer gowns were no longer of the same quality. We even had to start buying medical masks with our own money because they are not available at the hospital.”
Last week, five senior doctors in Nasiriyah said they were resigning because they no longer wanted to be forced to treat patients without the right equipment, medicines or protective gear. In particular, the doctors were very upset about the lack of oxygen to treat their patients.
Iraqis have started buying up oxygen cylinders in the country and storing them, so that if they do get infected, they will have them at hand.
Health professionals in Iraq are also always in danger of being at the receiving end of angry patients’ families. These will often blame the doctors who treated their family member and there have even been cases where families smashed hospital equipment.
The Iraqi media has certainly reported on the coronavirus and they have definitely highlighted the deaths of well-known Iraqis, such as the MP Ghaida Kambash, who died on July 10 after becoming ill with Covid-9 and well-known football player, Ahmed Radhi Humaiesh al-Salehi, who died on June 21. Military and tribal leaders have also passed away due to the virus.
As always in Iraq, rumours and disinformation also play a part. Many Iraqis don’t trust the local news media and get their information from social media.
Besides the familiar rumours that have done the rounds elsewhere – that the virus escaped from either the US or Chinese labs – there have also been several reports of miracle cures. Two Iraqi doctors said they had found a cure and that this was available from their private clinics. This disinformation spread so far that the Iraqi Ministry of Health eventually closed the clinics and barred the doctors from practicing.