At least 23 people have died when a fire broke out on Sunday in a coronavirus intensive care unit in the Iraqi capital, a country with long dilapidated health infrastructure facing an increase in Covid-19 cases.
The fire began with an explosion caused by “a lack of storage of oxygen cylinders,” medical sources told AFP.
It spread quickly, according to the civil defense, because “the hospital did not have a fire protection system and the false ceilings allowed the flames to spread to highly flammable products”.
Iraqi hospitals have been exhausted by decades of conflict and low investment, with shortages of drugs and hospital beds.
The incident sparked outrage on social media and the prime minister called for an investigation into the cause of the fire.
In the middle of the night, as dozens of relatives were at the bedside of 30 patients in the intensive care unit of Ibn al-Khatib hospital – reserved for the most serious cases of Covid-19 in Baghdad – the flames spread over several floors, another said a medical source.
Videos on social media showed firefighters trying to put out the flames at a hospital in the south-eastern outskirts of the Iraqi capital, as patients and their relatives tried to flee the building.
“The majority of the victims died because they had to be moved and were removed from the fans, while the rest were suffocated by smoke,” civil defense said.
He told Iraqi State News that its operatives had “saved 90 out of 120 patients and their relatives” at the scene, but could not give an exact number of dead and injured.
Medical and security sources said 23 people were killed and around 50 injured in the blaze.
The health ministry, which only issued a statement hours after the blaze, said it had “saved more than 200 patients” and promised an official death and injury toll later.
The fire – which several sources say was caused by negligence, often linked to rampant corruption in Iraq – immediately sparked anger on the country’s social media, with a hashtag demanding that the health minister be sacked , trending on Twitter.
The governor of Baghdad, Mohammed Jaber, called on the health ministry “to create a commission of inquiry so that those who did not do their job are brought to justice”.
In a statement, the government human rights commission said the incident was “a crime against patients exhausted by Covid-19 who put their lives in the hands of the Ministry of Health and its institutions and instead of being treated, perished in the flames “.
The commission called on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi to fire Minister of Health Hassan al-Tamimi and “bring him to justice”.
Mr Kadhemi responded by calling for “an immediate investigation with ministry officials” and demanded that “the hospital director, the head of security and the technical maintenance team be sent to investigators and not released. only when the guilty parties have been brought to justice “.
He also declared three days of national mourning.
On Wednesday, the number of Covid-19 cases in Iraq surpassed one million, the highest of any Arab state.
The Health Ministry has recorded 15,217 deaths since the country’s first infections were reported in February 2020.
He said he performs around 40,000 tests a day on a population of 40 million.
Patients who often prefer to procure oxygen tanks for treatment at home, rather than going to overcrowded and dilapidated hospitals.
The country launched its vaccination campaign last month and has received nearly 650,000 doses of different vaccines – the majority by donation or through the Covax program, which helps low- and middle-income countries obtain vaccines.
As of Wednesday, 274,343 people had received at least one dose, the ministry said.
Health officials have faced an uphill battle to convince Iraqis to get vaccinated, amid widespread skepticism at the time and public reluctance to wear masks since the start of the pandemic.