Numerous reports and local health experts have warned that Iraq's Covid-19 numbers are not genuine.

For decades, Iraq has been ravaged by war and unprecedented levels of destruction that has decimated its infrastructure, governance, and, most importantly, its people.

Unlike many developed countries around the world, the Iraqi health service, once the envy of Middle Eastern nations, cannot adequately test its citizens for the coronavirus pandemic nor does it have the capacity to treat large numbers of the sick and dying. 

However, Iraq’s lacklustre response to the virus tearing through the populace is not merely a case of the long-standing impact of an illegal US-led invasion and occupation. 

Kleptocratic politicians who worked with the powers behind the Iraq war and who now rule from Baghdad are also to blame for 17 long years of graft and the undermining of every Iraqi institution that could have been developed but was neglected in favour of lining the pockets of a corrupt elite.

Fudged figures hide a terrible truth

Current figures from Iraq suggest that, nationwide, there have only been 1,400 identified cases of infection with a surprisingly minuscule 78 deaths and 766 recoveries. However, these numbers are quite clearly fudged and completely inaccurate. 

Inexplicably, one of Iraq’s largest cities and Daesh’s former stronghold of Mosul has only recorded five coronavirus cases despite having a population of 1.5 million. New cases are few and far between, and this can likely be explained by the fact that Mosul’s health infrastructure was almost destroyed during operations to recapture the city from Daesh militants between 2016 and 2017. 

A lack of supplies, doctors, and other medical professionals capable of administering tests and recording accurate figures as a result of conflict would explain the Iraqi government’s inability to keep accurate records.

Iraqi health professionals, however, have wholly rubbished their government’s numbers. Doctors, who have decades of experience dealing with injuries and trauma caused by violence and are hardened by conflict, have warned that they are singularly unprepared for the coronavirus threat. 

Iraqi medics are concerned that ongoing pilgrimages important to the Shia community where tens of thousands gather, as well as the attitudes of tribal communities who oppose having female family members be quarantined unaccompanied by male chaperones, may be facilitating the spread of the invisible killer virus. Doctors repeatedly warned that they would see a spike in cases.

The fears of Iraqi doctors were well-founded. According to a report by Reuters, Iraqi authorities were deliberately concealing the true scale of the impact of the coronavirus in the country. Citing three separate sources, including health professionals and senior political officials, the report exposed how there could have been anything between 3,000 to 9,000 cases by the start of April, with 2,000 infected in eastern Baghdad alone. 

Further analysis cast doubts on the official figures, citing the comparative death toll of the coronavirus in developed economies with advanced healthcare systems like the United States, the United Kingdom, and other major Western powers.

In retaliation for the Reuters report, the Iraqi media regulator issued the London-based news agency with an order to apologise and a three-month ban with a $21,000 fine. Reuters decision to stick to their guns about the veracity of their report found support with Iraqi President Barham Salih who later spoke to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and told her that he would work to “revoke” the decision and reinstate the news agency’s license.

Public anger at boiling point

There can be no doubt that the Iraqi health infrastructure has suffered dramatically from decades of war, sanctions, and internecine strife. If the Iraqi authorities had stated as much and asked for global assistance in keeping an accurate track of infection rates and for help in treating the symptoms of the virus, then it could not in good conscience be accused of falsifying figures. 

However, it is clear from the testimony of health and political officials that they not only have something to hide, but they are silencing those who would expose them. The reason for this is apparent and is directly linked to the public’s fury that has been at the boiling point since October last year, leading to nationwide protests where heavy-handed security forces have killed 700 demonstrators.

Not only have the demonstrators been on the streets to protest against the sectarianism and corruption of the political process, but they have also been furious at the lack of economic opportunity and the complete gutting of public services. 

Seventeen years after a brutal dictator was toppled and a nominal democracy installed, Iraqis are worse off than they have ever been, and those in power who are supposed to work for their interests instead work for the interests of foreign powers, including Iran and the United States.

Iraqis have lost faith in a system that has done very little to reduce their suffering and to provide them with a real chance at life. Taking the pandemic as a short-term case study, it is clear that Iraqis have been relying on themselves more than their government. 

Doctors have taken to social media to hand out their phone numbers to provide urgent medical advice, while the women of Mosul have organised themselves to sew new personal protective equipment for medical personnel. Iraqi volunteer organisations with close ties to the protest movement have also mobilised to provide urgent care and assistance to families stricken by the virus.

In all this community action, the absence of government is notable and noticeable, particularly for the Iraqi people. The population has little faith in their government’s ability to care for them, and this can only have catastrophic consequences, leading to a total breakdown of trust and to the coronavirus being further fuel to add to the protesters’ fire. 

With the Iraqi government now standing accused of falsifying the true extent of the virus, Iraqis will begin to wonder why they even tolerate a regime that plays political games with their lives and could be the spark they need to solidify their popular dissent for years to come until real change comes to Iraq.

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