What does Iraq’s hospital fire say about the regard for human life?

Iraqis transport coffins of relatives killed during a fire in a hospital in the capital, during their funeral in Najaf, April 25. AFP
Iraqis transport coffins of relatives killed during a fire in a hospital in the capital, during their funeral in Najaf, April 25. AFP

Iraqis cannot catch a break. The country has lurched from conflict to conflict since 1980, brought upon by tyrannical leaders, extremists and sectarian militias and hegemonic or occupying powers. Now, instead of air strikes and suicide bombs, they suffer and die because of corruption and negligence – signifiers of a decrepit ruling order that thinks people's lives have no value.

At the weekend, tragedy struck again. At least 82 people died in a fire, most of them Covid-19 patients and their families, and 110 others were injured as the flames consumed parts of Ibn Al Khateeb hospital in a poor suburb of Baghdad.

Iraq is in the midst of another debilitating coronavirus surge. It is one of the hardest hit countries in the region. With over a million total cases, it is registering hundreds of infections every day.

Decades of violence and corruption have left the country of 40 million without the infrastructure to deal with the pandemic or to have enough medical staff at hand to treat the surge of patients, which is why so many families were at the Ibn Al Khateeb Covid-19 wards – they had to take care of their own loved ones.

Media reports indicated that an exploding oxygen tank was the spark that lit the flame which engulfed the hospital, a repurposed structure that was converted into a coronavirus treatment facility.

Remarkably, officials have said that the hospital lacked smoke detectors, sprinklers and working fire extinguishers. Fire escape routes were shut, and even the false ceilings and walls at the ICU were made from flammable materials, turning a centre for recovery into a death trap.

An Iraqi man waits next to oxygen bottles for his wife who is a patient with COVID-19 at the Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad, on April 25, 2021, after a fire erupted in the medical facility reserved for the most severe coronavirus cases. At least 23 people died when a fire broke out in a coronavirus intensive care unit in the capital of Iraq, a country with long-dilapidated health infrastructure facing mounting COVID-19 cases. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
An Iraqi man waits next to oxygen cylinders for his wife, a patient with Covid-19, at the Ibn Al Khateeb Hospital, Baghdad, April 25. AFP

Corruption and mismanagement are responsible for this tragedy, said the Iraqi President Barham Salih. Given the extent of negligence, those responsible have blood on their hands.

No official lifted a finger to prevent the tragedy

The scenes described by doctors at the hospital are gut-wrenching. One said he could hear patients and their families screaming at a higher floor, unreachable, as some 20 explosions ripped through the structure. The Associated Press said one nurse who was on fire jumped to his death from the window.

Reading the reports on the fire, I was struck by the parallels with last year’s explosion in Beirut, which rendered 300,000 people homeless because the authorities allowed 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate to languish in the port for years, until it blew up half the city. An investigation pointed to top officials, but the mafia-like top political echelons of the country have stymied it at every turn, even removing the judge leading it, in order to protect their own.

The two events are, of course, hugely different in scale and it saddens me to compare tragedies in this way. Nevertheless, the cause of the suffering is the same: a disregard for the country’s citizens and their well-being and a betrayal of the right to life.

Iraqis mourn relatives killed during a fire in a hospital in the capital, during a funeral procession in the holy shrine city of Najaf, on April 25, 2021. The fire which erupted pre-dawn at the Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad, a medical facility reserved for the most severe COVID-19 cases, killed 82 people, sparking angry calls for officials to be sacked in a country with long-dilapidated health infrastructure. / AFP / Ali NAJAFI
Iraqis mourn relatives killed during a fire in a hospital in the capital, during a funeral procession in Najaf, April 25. AFP

Reports cite doctors and healthcare workers in Iraq saying they knew the hospitals were like ticking time bombs, but no official lifted a finger to prevent the tragedy.

One thing that always struck me as a reporter in the Middle East, and which was instrumental in my decision to emigrate from the region, is how many avoidable tragedies take place because of discounting ordinary lives, and how few of the perpetrators are held to account.

Tragedies like the fire in Iraq, the Beirut explosion, the train and ferry accidents in Egypt, don’t happen because people decide to go out of their way to kill and maim. They happen because of negligence, a deadly callousness, with the implication that people’s lives don’t matter.

But these lives do matter. Each one of them does. They each had names, a place of birth, stories, dreams, loved ones who cared for them, perhaps children they hoped to nurture into adulthood, favourite foods and favourite songs, things that frightened them and moments of joy etched in their memories.

People are not merely statistics, even though the enormity of the suffering tempts us to treat them as such, because it is difficult to comprehend the scale of loss otherwise.

I do not know whether the families of the victims of Iraq’s latest tragedy will see justice. Nor do I know whether the loved ones of those who died in the Beirut blast will see the perpetrators held accountable. Will justice be delivered to other victims of incalculable other tragedies that have befallen the region, from a sheer lack empathy and humanity? It is too early to tell. But history suggests justice will be elusive.

I don’t see a way out of the collective trauma in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere without a real and honest reckoning with crimes of the past, which might afford the survivors of countless victims a sliver of peace.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National

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Updated: May 3, 2021 06:48 PM

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