Coronavirus: Baghdad governor says pandemic spreading quickly

Jaber Al Ata expects hospitals to be overwhelmed as residents ignore loosely imposed curfew

An Iraqi man sells coffee in the capital Baghdad's now deserted al-Mutanabbi street on April 17, 2020, known for its book sellers, during the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis that urged authorities to shut down social gathering places in a bid to slow its spread among the population.   / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
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The novel coronavirus is spreading rapidly in Baghdad due to mass violations of containment measures, the governor of the Iraqi capital said on Thursday.

Jaber Al Ata told the official news agency that Baghdad’s residents “are not adhering fully” to bans on movement and that it was expected that hospitals will soon be unable to cope.

“Some people are deliberately violating the preventive curfew, especially through large gatherings, which have caused the quick spread of the virus,” he said, without qualifying his comments with numeric data.

Several local officials have criticised the government for not doing enough to control movement.

However, the governor’s comments are the strongest yet hinting at the possibility of an all-out loss of control in the fight against the coronavirus.

The lockdown was on paper strengthened this week after the government said it discovered “contagion enclaves” in Baghdad.

Mr Al Ata said the situation is most acute in Al Rasafa, the residential areas on the eastern bank of the Tigris, the river that engulfed much of the civilisations of the ancient world, together with the Euphrates.

Unless a “total curfew” is imposed, the “geographical spread” of the coronavirus will keep expanding and Al Rasafa hospitals “will not be able to accommodate the number of cases,” he said.

The governor said he wrote to the cabinet to impose a watertight curfew and deploy police forces at night to prevent people from going out.

Iraqi health authorities say they have officially recorded 3,724 people as having been infected with the coronavirus, with 134 deaths among them.

But Iraq’s services and infrastructure are in a state of breakdown. Its bureaucracy is riddled with corruption, despite the country’s transformation to democracy in 2015, the year of the first free election in the post-Saddam Hussein era.

Few people believe that the official coronavirus data reflect the situation on the ground.

The pandemic has also become a political instrument for some of the most powerful actors in the system and militias exert a major influence on the borders with Syria and Iran, which are supposed to have been sealed.

The figure most conspicuous, but for many Iraqis, most unqualified, to give advice on the coronavirus has been Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who has been going back-and-forth on the need to observe the lockdowns and health guidelines.

Mr Al Sadr’s often muddled coronavirus pronouncements have been part of an undeclared war with Iraq’s most senior Shiite authority, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, who said that believers should follow the guidelines set by the temporal authorities.