Fire in Iraqi hospital COVID unit kills 23

Baghdad, April 25 2021: A leak in the storage of oxygen cylinders led to a fire in an Iraqi hospital resulting in the death of at least 23 people on Sunday in a coronavirus intensive care unit.

Iraq, a country with long-dilapidated health infrastructure is facing a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases. in the absence of a fire protection system and false ceilings, the fire spread quickly, according to the civil defence.

Hospitals in the country have been worn down by decades of conflict and poor investment, with shortages in medicines and hospital beds. The incident in the Ibn Al Khatib hospital sparked outrage on social media and the prime minister has called for an investigation into the cause of the blaze.

The incident happened in the middle of the night, as relatives of COVID patients waited besides their bed sides. The fire spread quickly engulfing several floors according to videos on social media showing firefighters trying to extinguish flames at the hospital on the southeastern outskirts of the Iraqi capital, as patients and their relatives tried to flee the building.

Most of the 23 victims died because of the suffocation from smoke or because they had to be taken off ventilators. The firefighters said they managed to rescue 90 people out of 120 patients and their relatives at the scene, but could not give an exact number of the dead and wounded. Meanwhile, the health ministry, which did not put out a statement until several hours after the fire, said it had “saved over 200 patients”, and promised an official toll of the dead and wounded later.

Social media outrage immediately erupted against the health minister as people blamed negligence resulting from endemic corruption and the incompetence of the man in charge. There have been calls for his removal with a hashtag demanding the health minister be sacked trending on Twitter.

Baghdad Governor Mohammed Jaber called on the health ministry “to establish a commission of enquiry so that those who did not do their jobs may be brought to justice”. In a statement, the government’s human rights commission said the incident was “a crime against patients exhausted by Covid-19 who put their lives in the hands of the health ministry and its institutions and instead of being treated, perished in flames”.

The commission called on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi to fire Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi and “bring him to justice”. Kadhemi responded by calling for “an immediate investigation with those in charge at the ministry” and demanded that the “hospital director, head of security and the technical maintenance team be sent to the investigators and not be released until those at fault have been brought to justice”. He also declared three days of national mourning.

Meanwhile, this week, the number of Covid-19 cases in Iraq surpassed one million, the highest of any Arab state. The health ministry has recorded 15,217 deaths since the country’s first infections were reported in February 2020.

Those patients who can often prefer to source oxygen tanks for treatment at home, rather than go to overcrowded and run-down hospitals. The country launched its vaccination campaign last month, and has received nearly 650,000 doses of different vaccines, the majority by donation or through the Covax programme, which is helping lower and middle income nations to procure vaccines. As of Wednesday, 274,343 people had received at least one dose, the ministry said. Health authorities have faced an uphill battle to convince Iraqis to get vaccinated, in the face of widespread scepticism over the jab and public reluctance to wear masks since the start of the pandemic.

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