Years of conflict and past sanctions have taken their toll on Iraq’s healthcare system. However, doctors in the country now highlight that mismanagement and corruption from the government has left it in an even worse condition. Authorities have squandered several opportunities to develop the country’s healthcare infrastructure and improve working conditions for doctors.
Iraq spends disproportionately little on its healthcare, compared with other regional countries such as Jordan or Lebanon. In its 2019 budget, it allocated 2.2 percent for healthcare, compared with 18 percent for security and 13 percent for its oil ministry.
Ultimately, Iraq’s medical workers pay the price for this neglect and risk their own lives to carry out their jobs. It was bad enough before the coronavirus pandemic, which has now placed them under even more unimaginable strain.
Due to the underfunding of Iraq’s healthcare system, medical workers do not have enough protective equipment whilst treating COVID patients.
“Many of us have had very little to no PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], especially in hospitals dealing with a large number of patients.”
“Many of us have had very little to no PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], especially in hospitals dealing with a large number of patients. When medical staff do receive [PPE], sometimes it does not even work properly, and this has made doctors more vulnerable to infection of COVID-19,” Shaymaa Alkamali, a doctor in Baghdad, told Inside Arabia. “Most of our staff actually [got infected with] COVID.”
“Due to these massive shortages, many doctors have been forced to buy gloves and medical masks themselves.”
Iraq has recorded over 100,000 cases of COVID-19, and over 4,000 deaths (as of July 22), although there were past accusations that authorities were covering up the real figures, to prevent public outrage. In any case, an influx of patients has overwhelmed the country’s hospitals since the pandemic was announced in March, yet facilities lack enough means to treat everybody, and doctors are consequentially overworked.
“There is also a large number of patients in our particular clinic, no less than 100 per day. This huge extra demand is difficult for us to cope with,” said Alkamali. “There is a shortage of ICU beds which makes it harder to keep the death toll to a minimum. While this is a problem all over the world, before [the pandemic] we [already] had a poor healthcare system that was in danger.”
Nearly all the hospitals beds are full and there is no available space in many healthcare centers. Very little oxygen is available, and therefore some citizens have bought it themselves and donated it to the hospitals.
Many doctors work all day with little to no rest, sometimes up to 48 hours in one shift. Some doctors have even collapsed and died under the strain.
Many doctors work all day with little to no rest, sometimes up to 48 hours in one shift. Some doctors have even collapsed and died under the strain. Under these intolerable conditions, medical workers cannot work productively, and this prevents them treating patients effectively.
Furthermore, medical personnel receive relatively low salaries. A doctor in Iraq earns about US$600 per month, while a police officer with incomplete education can earn around US$1,000, according to Waad al-Hafiz, a resident doctor in Baghdad.
“The major problem is the corruption and it’s everywhere and affects everything here,” he said.
Despite these circumstances, doctors and medical workers have gone above and beyond during the pandemic. Asides from putting their lives at risk to treat COVID patients, doctors have also offered free coronavirus consultations over the phone or social media – a service which has become very popular, Al Araby Al Jadeed reported.
“I see it as my duty to help them in this crisis,” said pediatrician Nour al-Rubaie.
“The medical staff are really doing an amazing job to work with such little materials, and they have done great considering the very poor supplies we have here,” added Alkamali.
Violence Toward Doctors
Despite the Ministry of Health refusing to provide adequate healthcare services for the public, it is doctors who receive the blame for this mismanagement. Many doctors also face systematic violence, harassment, assassinations, and kidnappings. Vengeful relatives and even militia gangs with connections to patients have killed medical personnel in “revenge attacks.” Even if they are not killed, violence toward medical staff is almost a daily reality. Armed groups have often stormed hospitals to target doctors while they are working, while others have been targeted on their way to work.
As with many countries, Iraqi doctors have served as the backbone of society during the pandemic and have been nothing short of heroes. Yet such attacks have seemingly increased with the deaths caused by coronavirus. Doctors feel that they are the ones being blamed for the suffering of patients.
“Not all families accept the death of COVID patients, so we have seen some doctors attacked verbally with violent speech or physically attacked.”
“Not all families accept the death of COVID patients, so we have seen some doctors attacked verbally with violent speech or physically attacked,” said Alkamali.
“One patient’s relative recently broke the window and ran after me and my colleague with the glass, but thankfully we were able to escape before being harmed,” said al-Hafiz.
Far from being isolated incidents, there is an epidemic of violence toward doctors.
Even prior to the pandemic, there has been a hostile media campaign against doctors, who are scapegoated for the decline in Iraq’s healthcare, according to al-Hafiz. This feeds a misconception that doctors are responsible for patients’ deaths, while shifting the blame away from the government’s mishandling.
Al-Hafiz also said “there is a perceived social gap between ordinary people and doctors. People think that the government gives doctors extra money for every new case.”
Militia gangs began targeting doctors during the aftermath of the US-led invasion against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
Militia gangs began targeting doctors during the aftermath of the United States-led invasion against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Over 20,000 doctors have fled Iraq since the invasion, as of last year, according to the Ministry of Health.
Some observers have called it a “disappearing profession,” triggered by the severe attacks and dire conditions that doctors face.
A study by the Health and Environment Volunteer Team in Iraq revealed 70 percent of Baghdad’s health personnel have expressed the desire to leave Iraq, while 98 percent said this exodus would decrease if a secure working environment were to be provided.
Mass protests erupted across Iraq in October 2019, calling for an end to government corruption, showing increased opposition to this mismanagement across Iraqi society. Doctors, who are clearly among the hardest hit by these policies, also call for greater security measures to protect them from being attacked. They also hope to raise greater awareness to end the unjust smear campaign against them as essential front-line workers in the COVID-19 pandemic.