'They're the virus': Iraq coronavirus outbreak refuels anti-government protests

'They're the virus': Iraq coronavirus outbreak refuels anti-government protests
Iran's deadly coronavirus outbreak has sparked public panic in neighbouring Iraq, where 19 cases have been confirmed.
4 min read
02 March, 2020
The outbreak refuelled protests in Iraq [Getty]
Iraq's outbreak of the novel coronavirus has refuelled protests in the country, shortly after widespread rallies took place against government incompetence, poor public services and foreign political meddling.

"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 hotspots, the anti-government demonstrators who have mobilised 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 cannisters, are now dispensing gloves and sanitiser.

Read also: Family fear Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has contracted novel coronavirus in Iranian jail

Volunteers in biohazard suits take the temperature of protesters lined up in queues.

"Even in normal times our healthcare system is totally run down," said Fatima, a volunteer in central Baghdad's Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the protests.

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

Inside medical centres, blood-stained 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 Organisation, Iraq has fewer than 10 doctors for every 10,000 residents.

Outbreak next-door

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

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 978 cases, the largest death toll outside China, the epidemic's epicentre.

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 travelling 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 7 March, turnout at protests had been expected to fall, especially after the government said it would restrict large gatherings over virus fears.

Populist cleric Muqtada Al-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.

Read more: How the Middle East is dealing with coronavirus

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 Mohammed 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 1 October, 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."

Agencies contributed to this report.

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