BAGHDAD, Iraq, Apr 25 – Iraqis on Sunday demanded officials be sacked after at least 23 people died in a fire at a Covid-19 hospital, in a country with a long-dilapidated health infrastructure.
The fire at Baghdad’s Ibn al-Khatib hospital started with an explosion caused by “a fault in the storage of oxygen cylinders”, medical sources told AFP.
Flames spread quickly across multiple floors in the middle of the night, as dozens of relatives were at the bedsides of the 30 patients in the hospital’s intensive care unit where most severe Covid-19 cases are treated, a medical source said.
“The hospital had no fire protection system and false ceilings allowed the flames to spread to highly flammable products,” the civil defence said.
“The majority of the victims died because they had to be moved and were taken off ventilators, while the others were suffocated by the smoke,” it added.
Medical and security sources told AFP that 23 people had been killed and some 50 others injured in the blaze.
The civil defence said its members “rescued 90 people out of 120 patients and their relatives”.
Iraq’s hospitals have been worn down by decades of conflict and poor investment, with shortages in medicines and hospital beds.
The incident sparked outrage on social media and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khademi called for an investigation into the cause of the blaze, and declared three days of national mourning.
After daybreak, dozens of tall oxygen cylinders that had been evacuated could be seen lined up outside the building, alongside gurneys and scattered debris, an AFP photograph said.
Videos on social media showed firefighters trying to extinguish the blaze as patients and their relatives tried to flee the building.
Amir, 35, told AFP he “saved his brothers who were at the hospital by the skin of his teeth”.
“It was the people who got the wounded out.”
– Negligence –
More than 200 patients in all were rescued, according to the health ministry, which pledged to release an official toll of the dead and wounded later.
The fire — which according to several sources was caused by negligence often linked to endemic corruption in Iraq — sparked anger on social media, with a hashtag demanding the health minister be sacked trending on Twitter.
Baghdad Governor Mohammed Jaber called on the health ministry “to establish a commission of enquiry so that those who did not do their jobs may be brought to justice”.
In a statement, the government’s human rights commission said the incident was “a crime against patients exhausted by Covid-19 who put their lives in the hands of the health ministry and its institutions and instead of being treated, perished in flames”.
The commission called on the prime minister to fire Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi and “bring him to justice”.
Kadhemi responded by calling for “an investigation” — echoing President Barham Saleh and parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi — and said he wanted results “within 24 hours”.
The prime minister also suspended the health director for the eastern sector of Baghdad and the head of Ibn al-Khatib, as well as the hospital’s heads of security and technical maintenance teams.
They are being questioned and nobody, Kadhemi said, will be released “until those who have done wrong are brought to justice”.
– Mounting coronavirus cases –
The UN top representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, expressed “shock” at the tragedy and called “for stronger protection measures to ensure that such a disaster cannot reoccur”.
On Wednesday, the number of Covid-19 cases in Iraq surpassed one million, the highest of any Arab state.
The health ministry has recorded more than 15,000 deaths since the country’s first infections were reported in February 2020, and has carried out around 40,000 tests daily from a population of 40 million.
Rather than go to overcrowded or run-down hospitals, patients who can afford it have often set up oxygen tanks for their use at home.
Iraq rolled out its vaccination campaign last month and has received nearly 650,000 doses of different vaccines — the majority by donation or through the Covax programme.
Around 300,000 people had received at least one dose as of Wednesday, the ministry said.
Health authorities have faced an uphill battle to convince Iraqis to get vaccinated, in the face of widespread scepticism over the jab and public reluctance to wear masks since the start of the pandemic.
© Agence France-Presse