Violence mounts against Iraqi doctors as COVID-19 cases spike

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Relatives of a patient, who died from COVID-19, beat up Tarik Sheibani, 47, an Iraqi doctor and director of Al-Amal Hospital, in this still image taken from CCTV footage obtained by Reuters, in Najaf, Iraq August 27, 2020. (Reuters)
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Tarik Sheibani, 47, an Iraqi doctor and director of Al-Amal Hospital, wears a protective suit at a hospital where he treats coronavirus disease patients, in Najaf, Iraq September 13, 2020. (Reuters)
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Tarik Sheibani, 47, an Iraqi doctor and director of Al-Amal Hospital, wears a protective suit as he walks at a quarantine ward at Al-Amal Hospital, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Najaf, Iraq September 13, 2020. (Reuters)
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Tarik Sheibani, 47, an Iraqi doctor and director of Al-Amal Hospital, wears a protective suit as he talks to a member of medical staff at a quarantine ward at Al-Amal Hospital, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Najaf, Iraq September 13, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 September 2020

Violence mounts against Iraqi doctors as COVID-19 cases spike

  • “All the doctors are scared,” said Sheibani, speaking at his home in Kufa a few weeks after the Aug. 28 attack
  • More than 8,000 people have died, a number that some doctors fear will rise sharply

NAJAF: Iraqi doctor Tariq Al-Sheibani remembers little else beyond cowering on the ground as a dozen relatives of a patient, who had just died of COVID-19, beat him unconscious.
About two hours later the 47-year-old director of Al-Amal Hospital in the southern city of Najaf woke up in a different clinic with bruises all over his body.
“All the doctors are scared,” said Sheibani, speaking at his home in Kufa a few weeks after the Aug. 28 attack. “Every time a patient dies, we all hold our breath.”
He is one of many doctors struggling to do their job as COVID-19 cases rise sharply in Iraq.
They are working within a health service that has been left to decay through years of civil conflict and underfunding, and now face the added threat of physical attack by grieving and desperate families.
Reuters spoke to seven doctors, including the head of Iraq’s Medical Association, who described a growing pattern of assaults on medical staff. Dozens have taken place since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has warned that the pandemic could spiral out of control in Iraq.




Tarik Sheibani, 47, an Iraqi doctor and director of Al-Amal Hospital, wears a protective suit at a hospital where he treats coronavirus disease patients, in Najaf, Iraq September 13, 2020. (Reuters)


Authorities have lifted many lockdown measures, allowing restaurants and places of worship to reopen, but they have shut borders to pilgrims ahead of a large Shiite Muslim pilgrimage that normally draws millions to the south of the country.
Iraq has recorded several thousand new coronavirus infections every day, and the total now exceeds 300,000.
More than 8,000 people have died, a number that some doctors fear will rise sharply, putting frontline health care workers under huge pressure and in some cases in physical danger.
The health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the COVID situation in Iraq and medics’ complaints about the threat of violence.
Sheibani, whose beating went viral when CCTV footage circulated online, said the family of the deceased patient blamed his staff for the death. He said he did not know how the video reached the public domain.
The patient had arrived at hospital in critical condition.
“I hate myself and I hate the day I became a doctor in Iraq,” Sheibani told Reuters. “They brought the patient in his final stages and he died, and they want the health system to bear the responsibility.”
Enforcing health safety guidelines within the hospital is not always easy, especially when tensions between families of sick patients and hospital staff are running high.
During a recent visit to Sheibani’s hospital, which is a coronavirus isolation center, Reuters reporters saw relatives of COVID-19 patients coming in and out of the ward without wearing full protective gear as they are supposed to.
Some were only wearing surgical face masks.
Iraq is fighting the pandemic with a depleted force of doctors and nurses.
In 2018, it had just 2.1 nurses and midwives per thousand people, compared with Jordan’s 3.2 and Lebanon’s 3.7, according to official estimates. It had 0.83 doctors per thousand people, while neighboring Jordan, for example, had 2.3.
There are also significant shortages of drugs, oxygen, and vital medical equipment, the result of years of underspending.
Many young doctors say they are overworked, putting in 12-16 hour shifts every day meaning they are more likely to make mistakes in prescriptions and treatment. Some take kickbacks for handing over certain drugs, physicians told Reuters.
The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Government vows action
Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has condemned the attacks against medical staff and promised to hold perpetrators to account.
The attacks have increased in recent months, said Medical Association president Abdul Ameer Hussein. He said his association could not keep track of all of them, but they include verbal and physical abuse and even stabbings.
Sheibani filed a complaint with police, but he said he had received threats from the people who beat him up to drop the case.




Tarik Sheibani, 47, an Iraqi doctor and director of Al-Amal Hospital, wears a protective suit as he walks at a quarantine ward at Al-Amal Hospital in Najaf, Iraq September 13, 2020. (Reuters)


“They might attack me or my family,” Sheibani said, adding that he no longer left his house alone.
Doctors say the government has not taken tough enough action to protect them from violence, which they have faced for years even before the pandemic.
The health ministry said in a statement on Saturday that it would assign its legal division to file lawsuits against those who attacked health workers, as well as those medics who fell short in treating patients.
According to the Medical Association, at least 320 doctors have been killed since 2003, when US-led forces toppled President Saddam Hussein, ushering in years of sectarian violence and extremist insurgencies.
Thousands more have been kidnapped or threatened.
Doctors and human rights activists say the state is so weak that it cannot bring doctor’s assailants to justice, especially if they come from a powerful tribe or belong to a militia.
“The government can’t protect doctors from tribes. Doctors end up dropping the cases because they receive threats,” said Hussein, adding that he often asks tribal leaders to mediate when a doctor is being threatened.
Doctors have gone on strike and protested in recent months over what they say is government inaction over the attacks.
Abbas Alaulddin, 27, a doctor in Baghdad who was assaulted last week by the family of a patient who died of COVID-19, said he was considering seeking asylum.
“The situation here is unbearable.”


Israeli envoys will travel to Sudan for normalization deal, Netanyahu says

Updated 42 min 51 sec ago

Israeli envoys will travel to Sudan for normalization deal, Netanyahu says

  • The agreement was brokered with the help of the United States and announced on Friday
  • It made Sudan the third Arab government to set aside hostilities with Israel in the last two months

JERUSALEM: An Israeli delegation will travel to Sudan in coming days after the two countries agreed to take steps to normalize ties, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday.
The agreement, brokered with the help of the United States and announced on Friday, made Sudan the third Arab government to set aside hostilities with Israel in the last two months.
“An Israeli delegation will leave to Sudan in the coming days to complete the agreement,” Netanyahu said at a news conference.
It was unclear, however, how long it will take for an accord to be completed. The military and civilian leaders of Sudan’s transitional government have been divided over how fast and how far to go in establishing ties with Israel.
The Sudanese premier wants approval from a yet-to-be formed parliament to proceed with a broader, formal normalization, and that may not be a quick process given the sensitivities and civilian-military differences. It is unclear when the assembly will be created.
US President Donald Trump’s decision this week to remove Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism paved the way for the accord, marking a foreign policy achievement for the Republican president as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3, trailing in opinion polls behind Democratic rival Joe Biden.
Trump sealed the Israel-Sudan agreement in a phone call with Netanyahu and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Transitional Council Head Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, in which he said: “Do you think ‘Sleepy Joe’ could have made this deal?“
Netanyahu, reliant on bipartisan support for Israel in Washington, responded haltingly: “Well, Mr. President, one thing I can tell you, is ... we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America.”
Asked at Saturday’s news conference whether he was embarrassed by Trump’s question, Netanyahu said: “It is very difficult to embarrass me,” and stressed he was grateful to Trump for his policy toward Israel. “I hope this policy will continue. I don’t want to make any prophecies about the election results.”

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