BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) — A fire that ravaged a COVID-19 hospital in the Iraqi capital overnight Saturday-Sunday killed at least 82 people and sparked angry calls for the sacking of officials, in a country with long-dilapidated health infrastructure.
The blaze at Baghdad’s Ibn al-Khatib hospital started with an explosion caused by “a fault in the storage of oxygen cylinders,” medical sources told AFP.
Flames 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 most severe COVID-19 cases are treated, a medical source said.
“The hospital had no fire protection system and false ceilings allowed the flames to spread to highly flammable products,” the civil defense said.
“The majority of the victims died because they had to be moved and were taken off ventilators, while the others were suffocated by the smoke,” it added.
At least 23 deaths were reported in the immediate aftermath of the fire, with an official toll of 82 announced Sunday by Iraq’s health ministry, which said that an additional 110 people had been wounded in the blaze. The country’s civil defense said it “rescued 90 people out of 120 patients and their relatives.”
Videos on social media showed firefighters battling to put out the blaze as patients and their relatives tried to flee the building.
— Steven Nabil (@thestevennabil) April 25, 2021
“It was the people who got the wounded out,” Amir, 35, told AFP, saying he saved his hospitalized brothers “by the skin of his teeth.”
Iraq’s hospitals have been worn down by decades of conflict and poor investment, with shortages in medicines and hospital beds.
The incident sparked outrage on social media and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khademi called for an investigation into the cause of the blaze, and declared three days of national mourning.
After daybreak, dozens of tall oxygen cylinders that had been evacuated could be seen lined up outside the building, alongside gurneys and scattered debris.
More than 200 patients in all were rescued, according to the health ministry, which pledged to release an official toll of the dead and wounded later.
The fire — which according to several sources was caused by negligence often linked to endemic corruption in Iraq — sparked anger on social media, with a hashtag demanding the health minister be sacked trending on Twitter.
Baghdad Governor Mohammed Jaber called on the health ministry “to establish a commission of inquiry so that those who did not do their jobs may be brought to justice.”
In a statement, the government’s human rights commission said the incident was “a crime against patients exhausted by COVID-19 who put their lives in the hands of the health ministry and its institutions and instead of being treated, perished in flames.”
The commission called on the prime minister to fire Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi and “bring him to justice.”
Kadhemi responded by calling for “an investigation” — echoing President Barham Saleh and parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi — and said he wanted results “within 24 hours.”
The prime minister also suspended the health director for the eastern sector of Baghdad and the head of Ibn al-Khatib, as well as the hospital’s heads of security and technical maintenance teams.
They are being questioned and nobody, Kadhemi said, will be released “until those who have done wrong are brought to justice.”
Mounting coronavirus cases
The UN 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.”
On Wednesday, the number of COVID-19 cases in Iraq surpassed one million, the highest of any Arab state.
The health ministry has recorded more than 15,000 deaths since the country’s first infections were reported in February 2020, and has carried out around 40,000 tests daily from a population of 40 million.
Rather than go to overcrowded or run-down hospitals, patients who can afford it have often set up oxygen tanks for their use at home.
Iraq rolled out its vaccination campaign last month and has received nearly 650,000 doses of different vaccines — the majority by donation or through the Covax program.
Around 300,000 people had received at least one dose as of Wednesday, the ministry said.
Health authorities have faced an uphill battle to convince Iraqis to get vaccinated, in the face of widespread skepticism over the jab and public reluctance to wear masks since the start of the pandemic.