Iraq once boasted one of the best healthcare systems in the region. Its crippled health infrastructure is but a microcosm of the neglect and misconduct in governance following the Gulf Wars.
It seems that barely a week can go by without another tragic story from Iraq making the news, this time an enormous conflagration in a coronavirus ward at a hospital in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq that caused the deaths of at least 90 people while injuring countless more.
The true tragedy, however, is that this was not some freak accident, a rarity that will likely never happen again. Quite the contrary, the blaze that tore through the Nasiriyah Covid ward was a repetition of something that had only recently occurred in Iraq, and outlines just how disastrous the country’s health sector has become.
The fire earlier this week was not only predictable, but it was entirely expected in a country besieged by corrupt elites who care only for themselves and not those they govern.
A history of corruption and neglect
While Iraq’s healthcare system is undoubtedly catastrophic, it cannot be seen in isolation from the wider malaise of corruption, incompetence, mismanagement and criminal neglect that has beset all Iraqi public sectors since the United States invaded in 2003, promising a better life but achieving nothing but compounding the misery Iraqis deal with on a daily basis.
Once the envy of other Arab nations, Iraq fielded an advanced educational and scientific infrastructure. Up until the brain drain caused by Western sanctions imposed on Iraq following the calamitous Gulf War of 1991, Iraq produced some of the best scientists, doctors, and medical professionals in the region whose expertise was internationally renowned.
Notwithstanding his glaring faults in other departments, Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein invested significant resources into ensuring his country could field the best and latest medical equipment during Iraq’s boom years in the 1970s and into the 1980s, despite its war with neighbouring Iran that lasted from 1980 to 1988.
However, the Gulf War changed all that and Iraq’s healthcare sector essentially turned retrograde as its infrastructure was frozen in time and did not advance beyond the massive investments of the 1980s. The impact of the sanctions regime imposed by the United Nations also meant that what Iraq did have, it could not maintain.
The UN’s controversial “oil for food” programme made matters worse, and was itself run by corrupt administrators facilitated by Western powers.
All told, this led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children by 1996, a ghastly figure that was described as “worth it” by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The US-led invasion in 2003 promised to make life better for Iraqis. Of course, only the hopelessly naïve believed that Washington had Iraqis’ best interests at heart, and the invasion and subsequent occupation made a bad situation even worse.
Whereas Iraq had only one dictator in Saddam’s days, the post-2003 order introduced thousands of dictators into the system, each vying for control over ministries in a divisive and corrupt political system that was fundamentally designed to sectarianise Iraqi society, tear it apart and disenfranchise large segments of the population in favour of another.
Another brain drain ensued, and professionals, including doctors, were routinely targeted and murdered by Shia militias linked to Iran to ensure Iraq’s ministries and public services were controlled by men loyal to the new order, not people who could lead by merit.
Ministry budgets were then directly controlled by competing political blocs, ensuring modern Iraq would be a cesspit of corruption and incompetence.
Arsonists can’t put out fires
In such a situation, is it any surprise at all that unqualified, incompetent and corrupt administrators have overseen almost two decades worth of compounding disasters?
The Nasiriyah blaze was the second such incident in less than three months, with another Covid-19 ward in the capital Baghdad going up in flames in April at the cost of 82 dead and more than a hundred wounded.
Such was the scale of the neglect that public anger forced then-Health Minister Hassan al Tamimi — a man who only attained his office by virtue of his relations with sectarian cleric and militia leader Muqtada al Sadr — to resign.
But Iraq’s health infrastructure crisis is not unique within the confines of the country’s woefully inadequate system of governance. Every sector of Iraq suffers from the same chronic neglect, mismanagement and rampant graft.
Take Iraq’s energy sector, for example. Despite being one of the world’s richest countries in terms of fossil fuel resources, Iraq continues to import energy from – you guessed it – Iran. It cannot properly operate its own power grid, and suffers electricity shortages throughout the year and especially in the summer months where temperatures can easily hit a scorching 50 degrees celsius, leading to outbreaks of public fury.
Iraq’s consecutive crises are the direct result of the corrupt political elite that govern the country. These elites can be likened to arsonists, and no one rational can possibly expect a gang of arsonists to put out the fires they intentionally start.
Rather than these arsonists, what Iraq so desperately needs is for a new generation of political players to emerge from within the population that has been so hard done by the new order and to act as firefighters to stamp out the wildfire of corruption that has destroyed their country.
Only then will Iraqis finally find the prosperity they have been repeatedly promised and cruelly denied for the past 18 years.
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