‘I numb myself’: Hospital fire deepens Iraq’s COVID crisis

Rescue workers and civilians clean up the fire site at a coronavirus hospital ward in the al-Hussein Teaching Hospital, in Nasiriyah, Iraq, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 16 July 2021

‘I numb myself’: Hospital fire deepens Iraq’s COVID crisis

  • Many blame corruption and mismanagement in the medical system for the disaster

BAGHDAD: No beds, medicines running low and hospital wards prone to fire — Iraq’s doctors say they are losing the battle against the coronavirus. And they say that was true even before a devastating blaze killed scores of people in a COVID-19 isolation unit this week.
Infections in Iraq have surged to record highs in a third wave spurred by the more aggressive delta variant, and long-neglected hospitals suffering the effects of decades of war are overwhelmed with severely ill patients, many of them this time young people.
Doctors are going online to plea for donations of medicine and bottled oxygen, and relatives are taking to social media to find hospital beds for their stricken loved ones.
“Every morning, it’s the same chaos repeated, wards overwhelmed with patients,” said Sarmed Ahmed, a doctor at Baghdad’s Al-Kindi Hospital.
Widespread distrust of Iraq’s crumbling health care system only intensified after Monday’s blaze at the Al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the southern city of Nasiriyah, the country’s second catastrophic fire at a coronavirus ward in less than three months.
Days after the latest fire, the death toll was in dispute, with the Health Ministry putting it at 60, local health officials saying 88, and Iraq’s state news agency reporting 92 dead.
Many blame corruption and mismanagement in the medical system for the disaster, and Iraq’s premier ordered the arrest of key health officials.
Doctors said they fear working in the country’s poorly constructed isolation wards and decried what they called lax safety measures.
“After both infernos, when I’m on call I numb myself because every hospital in Iraq is at high risk of burning down every single moment. So what can I do? I can’t quit my job. I can’t avoid the call,” said Hadeel Al-Ashabl, a doctor in Baghdad who works in a new isolation ward similar to the one in Nasiriyah. “Patients are also not willing to be treated inside these hospitals, but it’s also out of their hands.”
Iraq recorded over 9,600 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday in the highest 24-hour total since the pandemic began. Daily case numbers have slowly been rising since May. More than 17,600 people have died of the virus, according to the Health Ministry.
In April, at least 82 people — most of them severely ill virus patients in need of ventilators to breathe — died in a fire at Baghdad’s Ibn Al-Khateeb Hospital that broke out when an oxygen tank exploded. Iraq’s health minister resigned over the disaster.
Faulty construction and inadequate safety practices, involving in particular the handling of oxygen cylinders, have been blamed for the two hospital fires. The 70-bed ward at Al-Hussein Hospital was built three months ago using highly flammable interior wall panels, according to hospital workers and civil defense officials.
Inside one major Baghdad emergency room this week, relatives of COVID-19 patients sat on the floor because there were no chairs available.
With hospital space limited, Ahmed calls on Baghdad’s health directorate to advise him where to send patients. “They say, ‘Send five patients to this hospital, another five to this other,’ and so on,” he said.
Hadeel Almainy, a dentist in Baghdad, resorted to Facebook to find a place for her COVID-19-stricken father, pleading: “He can’t breathe, his skin is turning blue. The hospital couldn’t take us.”
In the southern city of Karbala, doctors have begged on social media for donations of remdesivir, an antiviral medication used to treat coronavirus patients.
Al-Shabl said medications and ventilators are running low at her hospital, and 60 percent of the COVID-19 patients there need the breathing machines.
For the first time since the start of the pandemic, children have come to the hospital with severe virus symptoms, said Alya Yass, a pediatrician at Al-Numan Teaching Hospital in Baghdad.
Doctors blame widespread vaccine hesitancy for the current surge and fear the actual number of infections may be higher than ministry figures. Many Iraqis forgo testing because they don’t trust public hospitals.
Less than 3 percent of Iraq’s population has been vaccinated, according to a Health Ministry official who was not authorized to talk to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity. The ministry has openly blamed the public for flouting pandemic restrictions.
Health workers said they have expressed their concerns to superiors with little results.
Mohammed Jamal, a former doctor at Al-Sader Teaching Hospital in Basra, said he confronted a ministry inspection committee and asked: Why haven’t the medications been restocked or fire extinguishers replaced? Where is the fire system?
“They didn’t listen. They didn’t see,” he said.


Four Iraqi Kurdish fighters killed in attack blamed on Daesh

Updated 06 December 2021

Four Iraqi Kurdish fighters killed in attack blamed on Daesh

  • Five other Peshmerga fighters were wounded in the violence late Sunday in northern Iraq

BAGHDAD: Four Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were killed in an attack blamed on the Daesh group, a security official said Monday, the third such assault in less than two weeks.
Five other Peshmerga fighters were wounded in the violence late Sunday in northern Iraq that targeted an outpost north of Kirkuk, the source said.
Kurdish army forces confirmed the deadly attack but did not say how Peshmerga fighters were killed in wounded, in a statement accusing Daesh of responsibility.
It was the third attack blamed on Daesh militants in less than two weeks against the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq.
On Thursday, Daesh claimed responsibility for an assault south of the Kurdish capital of Irbil that killed at least nine Peshmerga fighters and three civilians.
At the end of November, five Peshmergas were killed in a roadside bombing also claimed by the militant group.
Daesh seized swathes of Iraq in a lightning offensive in 2014, before being beaten back by a counter-insurgency campaign supported by a US-led military coalition.
The Iraqi government declared the extremists defeated in late 2017, although the Daesh retains sleeper cells which still strike security forces with hit-and-run attacks.


Israel: Palestinian car-rammer wounds guard, is shot dead

Updated 06 December 2021

Israel: Palestinian car-rammer wounds guard, is shot dead

  • Palestinians have carried out dozens of stabbing, car-ramming and occasional shooting attacks in recent years
  • Most have been carried out by lone attackers with no known connection to militant groups

JERUSALEM: A 16-year-old Palestinian rammed a vehicle into an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank overnight, wounding a security guard before being shot and “neutralized” at the scene, the Israeli Defense Ministry said Monday.
Israeli media reported that the alleged attacker was killed, while a ministry official declined to comment further.
The attack came two days after a Palestinian from the occupied West Bank stabbed and wounded an Israeli man just outside Jerusalem’s Old City and tried to stab a Border Police officer before being shot and killed. Video taken by bystanders showed the police continuing to shoot the attacker after he had dropped to the ground and preventing medics from approaching him.
The shooting drew comparisons to a 2016 incident in which an Israeli soldier was caught on camera shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker who was lying on the ground. The soldier was imprisoned for several months in a case that divided the country.
The Israeli Justice Ministry said the two officers involved in Saturday’s shooting were brought in for questioning before being released without conditions. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other top officials have praised the officers’ response to the attack.
Palestinians have carried out dozens of stabbing, car-ramming and occasional shooting attacks in recent years. Most have been carried out by lone attackers with no known connection to militant groups, which have praised the attacks without claiming responsibility for them.
Rights groups say Israel sometimes uses excessive force, killing suspected attackers who could have been arrested and did not pose an immediate threat. Israeli officials say forces must make split-second decisions in dangerous situations and that all such incidents are investigated.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war. The Palestinians want it to form the main part of their future state. The territory’s 2.5 million Palestinian residents live under Israeli military rule, with the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority administering cities and towns.


Lebanese president, PM and parliament speaker express satisfaction with Saudi-French agreement

Updated 06 December 2021

Lebanese president, PM and parliament speaker express satisfaction with Saudi-French agreement

  • MP Ali Darwish, from Mikati’s parliamentary bloc, hopes 'positive signs to emerge in coming days’

BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has affirmed his government’s commitment to honoring its undertakings for reform.

Mikati said that his joint phone call on Saturday with Saudi and French leaders was “an important step toward restoring historic brotherly relations with Riyadh.”

A joint Saudi-French statement, following the joint phone call between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and French President Macron with Mikati, linked “economic aid to Lebanon with the implementation of the required reforms.”

The statement reiterated demands that Lebanon should “implement comprehensive reforms, monitor borders, abide by the Taif Agreement, limit arms to the legitimate state institutions and not be a launching pad for any terrorist acts that destabilize the region (nor) a source of drug trafficking.”

Mikati also said: “I thank President Macron and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for their keenness in maintaining the friendship toward Lebanon.”

Mikati called both President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and briefed them on the phone call.

Mikati’s media office said that Aoun and Berri “expressed their satisfaction and stressed their adherence to the best relations with Saudi Arabia and all brotherly Arab countries, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.”

Mikati called “all parties in Lebanon to appreciate the sensitivity of the situation and circumstances and not to take any action or interfere in any matter that offends the Arab brothers and harms the Lebanese.”

He added: “It is time to commit again to the policy of disassociation and not to involve ourselves and our country in what has nothing to do with us.”

The Saudi position toward Lebanon left the Lebanese anxiously relieved about the extent of the seriousness of the ruling authority in implementing what was agreed on in Jeddah between French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Although Macron succeeded in opening the door to a solution to Lebanon’s diplomatic and economic crisis with Saudi Arabia, and thus the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, after the resignation of Information Minister George Kordahi from the government following his statements about the Kingdom, there is a fear that Hezbollah will continue to embroil Lebanon in regional politics.

However, MP Ali Darwish, who is from Prime Minister Mikati’s parliamentary bloc, expects “positive signs to emerge in the coming days.”

Darwish said that appointing a parliamentary committee to try presidents, ministers and MPs in return for allowing Cabinet sessions to take place was “one of the proposals.”

Darwish told Arab News that “the Saudi-French move has undoubtedly breached the wall of stalemate in Lebanon’s relationship with the Gulf, which Lebanon is keen to be extremely good in the midst of the conflict in the region.”

On the implementation of the French-Saudi statement, Darwish said: “The reforms are contained in the ministerial statement of Prime Minister Mikati’s government, and they are his government’s agenda, and he is striving to achieve them.”

Darwish added: “The most important thing now is to restore the connection that was cut off, to return the ambassadors to Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries, and to return the Arab ambassadors to Lebanon.”

Darwish said that the Mikati government would “never interfere in the judicial matter, as there is a separation of powers.”

However, he indicated that activating the Parliamentary Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers was possible but it required steps to be taken by parliament.

Darwish added: “However, the trade-off between this matter and any other matter, especially the dismissal of the governor of the Banque du Liban, is not on the table.”

Darwish said that Mikati’s concern “is securing the livelihood of the Lebanese people in light of the current severe economic crisis.”

He said work was “now focused on rounding the corners and bringing the views closer.”


Hoping virus won’t wreck Christmas, Bethlehem lights up giant tree

Updated 06 December 2021

Hoping virus won’t wreck Christmas, Bethlehem lights up giant tree

  • It is very joyful, a very nice evening. The air is full of hope, full of joy, full of expectation

BETHLEHEM: Residents lit up a giant Christmas tree outside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, hoping that a new coronavirus variant does not ruin another holiday season in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

The Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank was all but closed last Christmas, losing its peak tourist season to the pandemic.

This December has seen Israel shut out foreign travelers for 14 days to try to prevent the omicron variant taking hold, and the hope is that the ban will end as scheduled, in time for Christmas travel. In its last pre-pandemic winter, in 2019/20, Bethlehem hosted 3.5 million visitors.

The giant tree, topped with a bright red star, was lit up with hundreds of colored lights as red, white and green fireworks illuminated the night sky.

Mayor Anton Salman said the travel ban had prevented several foreign delegations attending.

Nonetheless, the audience in Manger Square in front of the church was far bigger than last year, when coronavirus restrictions kept even local spectators away.

"It is very joyful, a very nice evening. The air is full of hope, full of joy, full of expectation," said Maria, a tourist from Finland who did not provide her full name.


Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab

Updated 05 December 2021

Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab

  • Aboul Gheit said that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger an arms race in the region

CAIRO: The Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Ahmed Aboul Gheit has said that Iran aims to extend its control over the Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab, either directly or through militias it funds.

During his participation in the seventh Rome-Mediterranean Dialogue, held in the Italian capital with the participation of senior officials, experts and economists from countries bordering the shores of the Mediterranean, he pointed to attacks carried out by Iran in the summer of 2019, as well as to the continuing threat posed by the Houthis to navigation in the Red Sea.

The secretary-general added that the stability of navigation in these strategic straits, especially in the transportation of petroleum products, represented a fundamental backbone of the global economy, and that maintaining freedom of navigation without threat was a global priority and not only for the Arab countries bordering it.

He said that Iran’s behavior in the region, and its apparent tendency to dominate and interfere with Arab countries, was behind the difficulty in establishing a security system in the Gulf based on cooperation and the common welfare of the people.

He said that several initiatives had been put forward on this, but the main problem remained a lack of confidence due to Iranian policies that represented a threat to its neighbors.

Aboul Gheit said that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger an arms race in the region. He hoped negotiations would succeed in dissuading Iran from achieving this goal to avoid a deterioration in the current security situation.

He said it was difficult to address the Iranian nuclear program without acknowledging that there was already a nuclear power in the region in Israel, especially in light of its insistence on destroying the two-state solution and wasting opportunities for its implementation.