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A Spike In Coronavirus Cases Causes Outrage In Iraq


Now to Iraq, where a coronavirus spike is rattling the country. Some hospitals are overwhelmed. Family members have commandeered oxygen tanks for loved ones. Official figures show around 1,800 COVID-19 deaths, but that figure may be low. And last week, new infections jumped 40%. Some fear the country's health system can't handle it. NPR's Jane Arraf reports from neighboring Jordan.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: At the Al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the southern city of Nasiriyah, volunteers are delivering canisters of oxygen. Relatives of patients stormed this hospital last week, scuffling with staff to grab oxygen canisters as the supply ran out. Hospitals in Iraq are overwhelmed with COVID patients. And the country is grappling with a health care system suffering from years of corruption and neglect.


NAJI SADIQ: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Naji Sadiq, the head of intensive care at the Nasiriyah hospital, appealed in this video for the provincial governor to send oxygen and other supplies.


SADIQ: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "We are seeing our families die in front of us because of mercenaries and people profiting from poor people's lives," he says. The spokesman for Iraq's health ministry, Said al-Badr, blamed the situation on the families and the hospital for letting them in.

SAIF AL-BADR: (Through interpreter) The families started taking oxygen canisters. Of course this will lead to severe shortages and chaos. It's supposed to be distributed by the hospital staff.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: In another southern province, Dhi Qar, protesters stormed a government factory supplying oxygen canisters that had shut down. The protesters and government officials in Baghdad say it closed to import gas cylinders from Iran instead.

This is a war against the coronavirus, and we've lost the war, a government official tells me. He doesn't want his name used because he's not authorized to speak publicly. It's so difficult getting accurate statistics in Iraq that almost no one believes the official ones. And although on paper there are more than enough intensive care beds in Iraqi hospitals, that's not the reality. Dr. Aizen Marrogi is a former senior medical officer for the U.S. Army and at the U.S. embassy in Iraq.

AIZEN MARROGI: Corruption is No. 1. All the medications get - first, second, third day after they arrive, they disappear. The government pays for a lot of employees that don't exist. They're ghost employees.

ARRAF: He says the health care system lacks proper managers, nursing staff and technical expertise. The crisis is a major test for the country's new prime minister. Mustafa al-Kadhimi took power in May after anti-government protests forced out his predecessor. He's promised to fight corruption and rein in Iran-backed militias. But now he's also grappling with a drop in oil prices and a deepening crisis over the virus.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Amman, Jordan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALEXICO'S "SPINBALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.