The incident began in the room where the oxygen cylinders were “stored without respecting security conditions”

The interior of the hospital after the fireThai Al-SudaniReuters

At least 23 people have died in a fire declared Saturday night in an Intensive Care Unit for patients with covid-19 in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, the Arab country with the most infections.

The accident was caused by oxygen cylinders “stored without respecting safety conditions,” medical sources explained to AFP. One more disgrace in a country of 40 million people whose healthcare system has never recovered from four decades of war.

In the middle of the night, when there were dozens of relatives with “thirty patients in this Intensive Care Unit” reserved for the most serious cases in Baghdad, the flames spread to the floors of the Ibn Khatib hospital, as reported by a medical source.

“The hospital did not have a fire protection system and the false ceilings allowed the fire to spread to highly flammable materials,” Civil Defense reported. “Most of the victims died because they were displaced and deprived of ventilators, and others, suffocated by smoke,” he adds.

Videos posted on social media show firefighters trying to put out the flames as the sick and their families try to leave the building, located on the outskirts of Baghdad. Medical and security sources have told AFP that 23 people have died and about 50 have been injured.

The Civil Defense services have told the official Iraqi agency that they have managed to “save 90 people of the 120 sick and family members” who were at the scene, but have not provided the exact number of deaths and injuries.

Allegations of negligence

The fire, caused according to various sources by negligence – often linked to endemic corruption – has sparked an intense debate in the country. “Resignation of the Minister of Health” was repeated on the list of trending topics on Twitter in Iraq.

It is a “crime”, has denounced the governmental Commission of Human Rights. “Against patients exhausted by covid-19 who put their lives in the hands of the Ministry of Health and who instead of being cured died from the flames.” This commission calls on the Prime Minister, Mustafa al Kazimi, to remove the Minister of Health, Hasan al Tamimi, and “bring him to justice.”

Kazimi has responded by announcing “an immediate investigation”, the results of which he wants “in 24 hours”. It has also been requested by the President of the Republic Barham Saleh and the head of Parliament Mohamed al Halbusi.

The prime minister has suspended the chief of health for the eastern sector of Baghdad, the director of the hospital and the chiefs of security and technical maintenance. They are being interrogated and no one, he said, will be able to be released “until the guilty are tried.” It has also decreed three days of national mourning.

Hours after the fire, the Health Ministry boasts of having “saved more than 200 patients” and promises “a precise balance of deaths and injuries later.”

Iraq, a country with a shortage of medicines, doctors and hospitals for decades, surpassed one million cases of covid-19 on Wednesday. But it registers a relatively low death toll, probably because its population is one of the youngest in the world. According to the Ministry of Health, 1,025,288 Iraqis have been infected since the appearance of the new coronavirus in the country in February 2020, of which 15,217 have died.

The Health Ministry claims that it performs some 40,000 tests daily, a very low figure in a country with several cities with more than two million inhabitants, where the population density is high. Instead of going to hospitals in a dilapidated state, patients generally prefer to install an oxygen cylinder at home.

At the beginning of March a timid vaccination campaign began. Iraq has received nearly 650,000 doses of different vaccines, nearly all in donation form or through the international Covax program aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccines.

Almost 300,000 people have already received at least a first dose, according to health authorities, which tries to convince the population about the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing a mask.

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