Iraqis turn to home remedies, private clinics as COVID-19 overwhelms hospitals


Across Iraq, a country recovering from decades of war, health centres face shortages of oxygen supplies and protective equipment even as coronavirus cases soar to almost 130,000, with nearly 5,000 deaths.

Among those infected in the economically battered country, according to official figures, are 3,000 medical staff.

The dire situation is a far cry from the Iraq of the 1970s, which prided itself of having one of the best healthcare systems in the Middle East, and offered free state-of-the-art care to its citizens.

But back-to-back conflicts – from the war with Iran that started in 1980 to the US-led military campaigns and the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terror group – have sapped funds used to maintain the system.

For years, international sanctions made it impossible to get new medical equipment or even spare parts into the country.

The government still allocates barely 2% of its annual budget, which is funded almost entirely by oil sales, to the health ministry.

Even before COVID-19 hit this year, Iraq’s hospitals were run down, with outdated or broken equipment and staff often poorly trained and overworked.

Ms. Mais, 29, is expecting to give birth to her first child in a few weeks. Last year, she could have gone to a public hospital and paid a small, symbolic fee for the delivery.

“But I was afraid of COVID-19, so my gynaecologist advised me to go to a private clinic,” she told AFP.

Private clinics are flourishing, but few can afford them – particularly as Iraq’s poverty rate is set to double to 40% this year, according to a World Bank prediction.

Ms. Mais will have to shell out nearly US$1,500, but she feels she has no choice.

“All my friends did the same thing because the obstetric services have been exposed to patients infected with COVID-19,” she said.

One of the nine public hospitals in Wasit province, where Kut is located, has been transformed into a coronavirus treatment ward.

The other eight are trying to operate as usual, referring all COVID-19 cases to the specialised facility.

Still, residents are so afraid they will be exposed to the virus that they have largely stopped going to medical facilities altogether.

“In the first three months of 2020, we carried out 400 surgeries. The next three months, it was just 187,” said Dr. Qader Fadhel, a surgeon at the public Al-Karama hospital.

Instead of heading to hospitals, Iraqis suffering from illness and injuries are flocking somewhere else: pharmacies.

“Around 90% of my customers describe their symptoms to me so I can prescribe the medication myself, and they can skip going to a hospital altogether,” one pharmacist, who preferred to speak anonymously, told AFP.

They then treat themselves at home, sceptical that they could even get an appointment in a country with just 14 hospital beds for every 10,000 people, according to World Health Organisation data.

France, by comparison, has 60 beds for every 10,000 people.

But even for those Iraqis treating themselves at home, costs can add up.

Oxygen tanks, Vitamin C or zinc tablets meant to boost immunity and even some face masks have tripled or quadrupled in price, Iraqis trying out domestic remedies told AFP.

Still, they insist, going it alone is a better choice than catching COVID-19 in a dilapidated public hospital. (Source: The Straits Times)