Iraq coronavirus outbreak throws fresh fuel on protests

‘Politicians the real virus,’ say anti-government demonstrators, accusing authorities of poor health care and failing to declare real numbers of infections

Student protesters wearing protective face masks march with a sign during an anti-government demonstration in Iraq's southern city of Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar province on March 1, 2020. (AFP Photo  Asaad Niazi)
Student protesters wearing protective face masks march with a sign during an anti-government demonstration in Iraq's southern city of Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar province on March 1, 2020. (AFP Photo Asaad Niazi)

Iraqi protesters had been rallying against government incompetence, poor public services and foreign political meddling for months. Then the novel coronavirus hit and fueled their grievances.

“The real virus is Iraqi politicians,” said Fatima, an 18-year-old protester and medical student from Baghdad. “We are immune to almost everything else.”

Across squares in the capital and southern protest hot spots, the anti-government demonstrators who have mobilized since October have started to take public health into their own hands.

They have distributed leaflets and delivered lectures on coronavirus prevention, while volunteers have handed out free medical masks, which have more than doubled in price in local markets.

Makeshift clinics, which were erected months ago to treat demonstrators hit by live fire and tear gas canisters, are now dispensing gloves and sanitizer.

Volunteers in bio-hazard suits take the temperature of protesters lined up in queues.

“Even in normal times our health care system is totally run down,” said Fatima, a volunteer in central Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests.

Iraqi policemen stand behind barbered wire during ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on March 1, 2020 (SABAH ARAR / AFP)

“Now, on top of everything, we have a coronavirus outbreak, and we are supposed to rely on these facilities?”

Inside medical centers, bloodstained sinks in washrooms and ill-equipped amenities have become a common sight.

Hasan Khallati, a member of the parliament’s health committee, insisted to AFP that Iraq’s “hospitals and healthcare facilities are fully equipped to deal with the outbreak” of COVID-19.

But available data tells a different story. According to the World Health Organization, Iraq has fewer than 10 doctors for every 10,000 residents.

Outbreak next-door

Iraq reported its first coronavirus case last week in an Iranian national studying at a religious seminary in the southern shrine city of Najaf.

The total number of diagnosed infections has since jumped to 19 — all traced to the Islamic republic, just across the border.

Iran has recorded 66 deaths among over 1,000 cases, the largest death toll outside China, the epidemic’s epicenter.

This has sparked public panic in Iraq, one of Iran’s largest export markets and a popular destination for Iranian pilgrims visiting Najaf and Karbala, another holy city.

Many Iraqis also cross the frontier for business, tourism, medical treatment and religious studies.

Responding to the outbreak, Iraqi authorities closed land borders with Iran and banned the entry of foreign nationals traveling from there and other badly affected countries.

In the protest camps, anti-Iranian sentiment is on the rise, having surged in recent months among demonstrators who accuse Tehran of meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs.

This has been compounded by accusations that Iranian officials are covering up the severity of the outbreak within their borders.

Iraqi officials, protesters charge, are doing the same.

“We think there are cases the government has not yet declared,” medical student Russol said at a protest camp in the southern city of Diwaniya. “They need to be transparent with the people.”

‘Snipers didn’t deter us’

With schools, universities, cinemas, cafes and other public places ordered shut until March 7, turnout at protests had been expected to fall, especially after the government said it would restrict large gatherings over virus fears.

Populist cleric Moqtada Sadr, regarded as an engine of the protest movement before he withdrew his support in late January, told his loyalists they were prohibited from demonstrating because of the epidemic.

But students who make up the bulk of the anti-government movement have taken advantage of suspended classes to return to the streets.

Iraqi protesters gather during ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on March 1, 2020. – Iraq’s bitterly divided parliament postponed a vote of confidence in prime minister-designate Mohammad Allawi’s government for a second time, as political wrangling continued ahead of a looming deadline. (Photo by SABAH ARAR / AFP)

On Sunday, they flowed into protest camps in Baghdad and Diwaniya to press for a government overhaul two months after outgoing premier Adel Abdel Mahdi resigned under popular pressure.

The same day, prime minister-designate Mohammad Allawi bowed out, plunging Iraq deeper into political uncertainty.

The protesters said they had faced much deadlier threats than the novel coronavirus, which has yet to lead to fatalities in Iraq.

“Your snipers didn’t deter us, what can coronavirus do?” protesters chanted.

Security forces have used tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, live rounds and even machine-gun fire to disperse protests.

Since October 1, around 550 people have been killed and 30,000 others injured, mostly protesters.

Last week alone, four protesters were shot dead in protest camps and one activist was killed in his home.

“Political parties and corruption are an epidemic that is much more dangerous than the coronavirus,” said Mohammad, a university student in Diwaniya.

“This is the outbreak we want to get rid of because it has destroyed Iraq.”

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