Iraqi health minister suspended after hospital fire kills 82

Baghdad, Iraq: In a nation with long-dilapidated health facilities, the Covid-19 hospital sparked outrage and resulted in the suspension of top officials.

Many of the victims were on respirators and were suffocated or burnt in the smoke and flames when the fire broke out at the Ibn al-Khatib hospital in eastern Baghdad, medical sources said. The blaze began with an explosion triggered by "a flaw in the storage of oxygen cylinders."

The health ministry recorded 82 deaths and 110 injuries, while the Iraqi Human Rights Commission reported 28 victims were patients who had to be taken off ventilators to avoid the fire.

According to a medical source, the fire spread rapidly through several floors in the middle of the night, as hundreds of relatives were at the bedsides of the 30 patients in the hospital's intensive care unit, where the most serious Covid-19 cases are treated.

Bakr Qazem, a victim's son, said he was at the hospital when he felt "a heavy explosion."

"We saw a fire and were unable to save the patients," he told AFP from Najaf, south of Baghdad, where he had taken his father's body for burial the day before.

Funeral processions for the victims filled the holy shrine district, where the vast majority of Iraq's Shiites are buried, throughout the day.

"The hospital had no fire safety system, and false ceilings permitted the flames to spread to highly flammable objects," according to Iraq's civil defense services.

It also stated that firefighters had been delayed in reaching the hospital, which is located on the rural, agricultural outskirts of Baghdad.

Negligence 

As part of an investigation that involves the governor of Baghdad, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi suspended Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi, who is supported by the influential Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr.

The fire sparked outrage on social media, with a hashtag calling for the health minister's resignation trending on Twitter.

Kadhemi also announced three days of national mourning, and parliament said it would hold a special session on Monday to reflect on the tragedy.

According to witnesses, the hospital's evacuation was slow and chaotic, with patients and their families crowded into stairwells as they searched for exits.

Residents from the surrounding area rushed to assist.

"It was the people (civilians) who got the wounded out," Amir, 35, told AFP, saying he saved his hospitalized brothers "by the skin of his teeth".

Iraq's hospitals have been ravaged by decades of violence and underinvestment, resulting in a lack of drugs and hospital beds.

Some, however, blamed the deadly inferno on incompetence and widespread corruption.

"The tragedy at Ibn al-Khatib is the result of years of erosion of state institutions by corruption and mismanagement," President Barham Saleh tweeted.

The Iraqi Human Rights Commission condemned a "crime against patients exhausted by Covid-19 who trusted the health ministry and its institutions with their lives."

"Rather than being handled, (they) perished in flames," it continued.

Many bodies have yet to be found, according to witnesses and doctors, because the corpses were too burned by the intense flames.

Increasing virus cases 

One of the victims, Ali Ibrahim, 52, was being treated for coronavirus at the Ibn al-Khatib hospital when he died on Sunday. He was buried by his family in Zaafaraniya, a neighborhood near the hospital.

"He had spent 12 days in the hospital and was due to be discharged on Saturday evening after recovering. He was just waiting for the result of the last Covid-19 test," one of his relatives told AFP.

According to one of his relatives, Kadhemi also suspended the head of the health department in eastern Baghdad, the hospital chief, and others in charge of the medical facility's security and maintenance.

He promised to send the investigation's findings to the government within five days.

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN's top representative in Iraq, expressed "shock" at the tragedy and called for "stronger security measures to ensure that such a catastrophe does not reoccur."

Pope Francis, who made a landmark visit to Iraq in early March, asked for "prayers" for all of the fire victims.

On Wednesday, the number of Covid-19 cases identified in Iraq surpassed one million, the highest in any Arab nation.

Since the pandemic began last year, the health ministry has reported over 15,000 deaths and performed about 40,000 tests a day on a population of 40 million people.

Iraq launched its vaccination campaign last month and has collected nearly 650,000 doses of various vaccines, the bulk of which were donated or obtained through the Covax scheme for low and middle-income countries.

According to the ministry, approximately 300,000 people had received at least one dose as of Sunday.

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