NAJAF: Relatives of those killed in the fire mourn during their funeral on Sunday.—AFP
NAJAF: Relatives of those killed in the fire mourn during their funeral on Sunday.—AFP

BAGHDAD: More than 80 people died on Sunday in a fire that ripped through an Iraqi Covid-19 hospital, sparking anger and prompting the suspension of top officials in a country with long-dilapidated health infrastructure.

Many of the victims were on respirators and were suffocated or burned in the smoke and flames when the blaze, at eastern Baghdad’s Ibn al-Khatib hospital, started with an explosion caused by “a fault in the storage of oxygen cylinders”, medical sources said.

The health ministry said 82 people were killed and 110 wounded, while the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said 28 of the victims were patients who had to be taken off ventilators to escape the flames.

The blaze spread quickly across multiple floors in the middle of the night, as dozens of relatives were at the bedsides of the 30 patients in the hospital’s intensive care unit where the most severe Covid-19 cases are treated, a medical source said.

Bakr Qazem, son of one the victims, said he was at the hospital when he felt “a strong explosion”. “We saw a fire and were not able to save the patients,” he said, tears in his eyes, in Najaf, south of Baghdad, where he had taken his father’s body for burial on Sunday.

Throughout the day, funeral processions for the victims filled the holy shrine city, where the vast majority of Iraq’s Shias are buried.

According to Iraq’s civil defence services, “the hospital had no fire protection system and false ceilings allowed the flames to spread to highly flammable products”. It added there had been a delay in firefighters reaching the hospital, located in the remote, agricultural outskirts of Baghdad.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi suspended Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi — who is backed by the powerful Shia leader Moqtada Sadr — as part of a probe that includes the governor of Baghdad.

The fire triggered outrage on social media, with a hashtag demanding the health minister be sacked trending on Twitter.

Kadhemi also declared three days of national mourning, while parliament said it would devote its Monday session to the tragedy.

Witnesses said the evacuation of the hospital was slow and chaotic, with patients and their relatives crammed into stairwells as they scrambled for exits.

Residents from the surrounding area rushed to the scene to help. “It was the people (civilians) who got the wounded out,” Amir, 35, said, adding he saved his hospitalised brothers “by the skin of his teeth”.

Iraq’s hospitals have been worn down by decades of conflict and poor investment, with shortages of medicines and hospital beds.

But many also said negligence and endemic corruption were to blame for the deadly inferno. “The tragedy at Ibn al-Khatib is the result of years of erosion of state institutions by corruption and mismanagement,” President Barham Saleh tweeted.

The Iraqi Human Rights Commission denounced a “crime against the patients exhausted by Covid-19 who put their lives in the hands of the health ministry and its institutions”. “Instead of being treated, (they) perished in flames,” it added.

Witnesses and doctors said many bodies had yet to be identified, the remains too charred by the intense flames.

One of the victims, Ali Ibrahim, 52, had been treated for coronavirus at the Ibn al-Khatib hospital and was buried by his family on Sunday at Zaafaraniya, a neighbourhood near the hospital.

“He had spent 12 days in hospital and was due to be discharged on Saturday evening after recovering. He was just waiting for the result of the last Covid-19 test,” one of his relatives said.

Kadhemi also suspended the head of the health department in eastern Baghdad, the hospital director as well as those in charge of security and maintenance at the medical facility.

He pledged to submit the results of the investigation to the government within five days.

The UN’s top representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, expressed shock at the tragedy and called “for stronger protection measures to ensure that such a disaster cannot reoccur”.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2021

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