Coronavirus: Iraq opens borders as daily cases surge

Health officials warn lack of public compliance to regulations will result in collapse of system

NAJAF, IRAQ - AUGUST 31: Doctors check on a patient suffering from coronavirus at the Dr. Hassan Haloos hospital on August 31, 2020 in Najaf, Iraq. On September 4, Iraq recorded 5,036 coronavirus cases, its biggest daily increase since the start of the outbreak.  The surge has prompted warnings from Iraq's health minister and WHO that the country could be on the verge of a health crisis as pressure mounts on the already strained healthcare system. Since the first case was recorded in February, Iraq has recorded 252,075 total cases and 7,359 deaths. (Photo by Hawre Khalid/Getty Images)
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Iraq on Tuesday recorded one of its highest daily tallies of coronavirus infections as the country opened its border crossings, hotels and restaurants.

The Health Ministry registered 4,894 new cases and 68 deaths, bringing the total cases to 269,758 and 7,657 fatalities.

Iraq's fragile health sector is bracing for a rapid spread of the virus as hospitals have been overwhelmed by the jump in cases after months of a relatively slow spread.

“Land crossings would be open for trade only so as to secure local market needs," Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi said.

"Restaurants and five-star hotels must adhere to public health guidelines."

Government agencies can now allow 50 per cent of employees to return to work, he said, and sporting events would resume as of September 12.

The restrictions were lifted after a night meeting led by Mr Al Kadhimi and health officials.

He took office four months ago, facing the unenviable task of trying to pull the country out of an economic decline.

Iraq’s economy is almost dependent on oil sales, prices of which have taken a huge dip due to the pandemic.

It follows months of public unrest where anti-government protests filled the streets of Baghdad and southern cities, demanding an end to corruption, economic decay and poor public services

The country recorded its highest daily increase in coronavirus infections on Friday with 5,036 cases as Iraqis continue to flout lockdown rules, the health ministry said.

A ministry official warned the lack of public compliance to health regulations will increase the number of infections to which hospitals may not be able to respond\.

“The ministry may halt its operations due to the overload of cases because our health institutions have a limited capacity and this will result in an increase in deaths,” Riyadh Abdul Amir, head of public health, said on Saturday.

Officials across the country have warned for months that they are not equipped to deal with a full-blown crisis, with a healthcare system depleted by years of conflict and corruption.

Mr Abdul Amir said the ministry was willing to ease restrictions and will reopen public facilities only if strict health measures are followed.

Iraq's first case was announced in the final week of February, a month after the virus was first reported in the Middle East.

Also on Tuesday, the UN refugee agency it has confirmed two coronavirus cases in the Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, which is home to more than 40,000 people who have fled their country’s civil war.

They are the first infections to be detected among Syrians living in refugee camps in Jordan.

The UNHCR said the two patients were transferred to quarantine centres after testing positive late on Monday, and their neighbours have been isolated as more testing is carried out.

Jordan hosts more than 650,000 Syrian refugees, most of whom live outside camps.

At least four Syrian refugees living outside the camps in Jordan have tested positive, with three of them recovering.

Experts and aid agencies have warned of potentially catastrophic outbreaks in the world’s refugee camps, where sanitation is often poor and social distancing is nearly impossible.

More than 70 million people worldwide have fled their homes because of war and unrest, and up to 10 million live in refugee camps and informal settlements.