WHO expects Iraq’s coronavirus cases to rise sharply within 10 days

More than 50 deaths have been reported in the country, making it one of the worst-affected nations in the region

A woman wearing a surgical mask walks behind a medical staffer wearing protective gear along a hallway at Basra University Hospital, where COVID-19 coronavirus patients are treated, in the southern Iraqi city on April 1, 2020.  / AFP / Hussein FALEH
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Iraq’s coronavirus cases will sharply rise within the next 10 days, the World Health Organisation said, as the death toll in the country climbed to 51 on Wednesday.

Iraq, struggling to cope with a devastated health system, has 697 known infections, making it one of the worst-affected countries in the region.

Because testing is limited many believe the number to be much higher.

Dr Adham Ismail, the WHO's representative in Iraq, said the increase in testing will be of “high importance in terms of infection transmission and control”.

The WHO says the figures are “still moderate so far but expects a spike in the coming weeks” because of the increase in testing.

A total of 169 recoveries have been confirmed in the past 24 hours.

Most confirmed patients have travelled to badly affected destinations such as Iran, China and Europe.

“Three laboratories became operational for Covid-19 testing in Najaf, Basra and Baghdad Medical City in Baghdad," the WHO said.

"This has increased the numbers of tested cases to more than 4,500 tests a day, compared to a maximum of 100 a day a few weeks ago."

The eruption of the virus in neighbouring Iran increased the likelihood of the disease spreading in Iraq, the organisation said.

“It necessitated faster prevention and infection control measures, especially in the holy cities and pilgrimage sites, bordering governorates and vulnerable communities in internally displaced people and refugee camps.”

The spokesman for Iraq’s Health Ministry, Said Al Badr, said on Wednesday that the health sector lacked equipment, staff and preparation for the outbreak.

“Until now we are controlling the situation but will face a series of challenges if our requests are not met by the government,” Mr Al Badr said.

The ministry has appealed for help from the government in Baghdad several times and claims it has little funding to combat the crisis.

Health Minister Jaafar Allawi requested $5 million (Dh18.3m) in emergency funds from the government after Iraq recorded its first case, but received no answer.

Mr Allawi had to turn to a Shiite cleric for assistance.

“There is no money and we are in a difficult situation,” Mr Allawi told the cleric in a video shared widely online.

More than 4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Iraq.

Many people, especially the most vulnerable, are unable to independently meet their basic needs such as food and shelter, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

"We fear the worst for people in prisons and displacement camps," Jessica Moussan of the ICRC told The National.

"Physical distancing is a privilege that is simply not available to people in these places.

“People who have been displaced are often already vulnerable to health complications, while detention facilities that are overcrowded pose an extra challenge in preventing or containing infectious diseases."

The development coincides with the arrival in Baghdad this week of Brig Gen Esmail Qaani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.

It is Brig Qaani’s first public visit since he succeeded Qassem Suleimani, who was assassinated in early January.

He landed at Baghdad’s international airport as the outbreak of the virus forced authorities to impose a curfew and halt all incoming and outgoing flights.

Suleimani visited Iraq regularly during its political and social crises, and had strong relations with the country’s religious and political factions.

He was known for his ability to make even Iraqi rivals hash out their differences and forge unity during times of political paralysis.

Prime minister-designate Adnan Al Zurfi has several weeks to form a new cabinet and present it to Parliament for approval.

But Mr Al Zurfi he is having difficulty swaying powerful Shiite political parties to vote in his favour.