Nawzat Shamin – Iraqi journalist
“Where is the government? We feel ashamed in front of our families and children, and I do not trust the virus will end. They were talking about days, but we have been under lockdown for more than a month.
It has been one month since the curfew was enforced, the roads leading to Tahrir Square, passing through some of the most famous hotels in the Iraqi capital, seemed almost empty. There is no traffic except for a few security cars and a few shoppers along Saadoun Street to the Karrada area, whose markets were one of the busiest in Baghdad, before the Corona virus infiltrated the country and turned the lives of Iraqis into isolation and hardship.
In the popular neighborhoods in Baghdad and its outskirts, the commitment of the people seems less, but traffic remains limited with the prevention of movement in cars and the inability of tens of thousands of workers in various sectors to go to work, which puts them on the edge of the poverty line and adds a new problem to a long list of aggravated problems in Iraq.
In the north, in Erbil, calm prevails in the streets surrounding the historic castle and the modern commercial centers in the middle of the city. Some of its areas, such as the Housing Street, did not know sleep before the Corona crisis. Now, only police cars were at a major intersection to spot those violating the ban.
The scene is repeated similarly in Basra in the south as well as in Anbar in the west, although only two cases were recorded there, and even in Najaf and Karbala, where religious shrines that usually receive thousands of visitors per day. Now, the entrances, and corners of the shrines seemed empty and life almost stopped.
Haidar (38 years), who works in a shop in the old market in Najaf near the shrine of Imam Ali, says, “I have never seen such a scene in my life … the shrine, the streets and some markets are almost empty of people … life here is almost stopped … the city lives on its absentee visitors .. It is not believed what the virus has done all of this to us.”
Measures to prevent “Disaster”
Since early March 2019, the Iraqi authorities imposed a curfew ,in most governorates ,as the only solution to prevent the outbreak of the virus in the country that already suffers from a series of economic, political and security crises, and witnessed popular protests to change the political regime and end corruption that lasted for about five months before all of this was frozen due to the spread of the virus that disrupted people gatherings.
According to official figures, 1,415 Corona cases were recorded (including 335 in the Kurdistan region) and 79 deaths as of April 15, but the number of Corona tests that were conducted remains limited as they focus on those who have symptoms and those who come into contact with the infected people and ignore others, which means the possibility of the presence of greater numbers of unrecorded cases for people who have no symptoms.
“It is a dilemma, closing the borders is not possible. We import most of our basic needs from outside the country … Keeping the borders open means keeping the possibility of the virus getting in.”
The caretaker government, led by the resigned Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, formed a crisis cell to combat the disease and limit its spread in mid-February 2020, and then a Higher Committee for National Health and Safety was formed at the time the first cases were discovered in religious cities and then in the provinces bordering Iran. Decisions and precautionary measures such as curfews, suspending working hours in schools and universities, and reducing working hours in government departments were taken, in order to avoid the spread of the virus in light of a health system described by those concerned as decaying due to the lack of supplies, buildings and even staff.
However, some of these decisions did not find their way to implementation on the ground in the early days of their issuance, so thousands of Shiites participated in visiting the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim in Baghdad, and in the Kurdistan region thousands of families celebrated Nowruz, and some continued to hold condolences and exchange family meetings, before the numbers of cases rose from few tens to hundreds, and after many warnings from the specialists of the imminent “disaster”,the government tightened its procedures and deployed security and army personnel in some residential areas to prevent people from leaving their homes.
Doctor Hazem Ahmed says that the country does not have any means to confront the outbreak of the virus, “There is lack of beds, equipment, and even medical staff.The only solution is to tighten the lockdown measures … If the Europeans with their advanced health systems lose thousands of people every day, what is that will it happen to us?”
Jawad Al-Mousawi, a member of the Health Committee and the Parliamentary Crisis Cell, says that the health system in Iraq will begin to collapse in the event that the number of cases exceeds five thousands, indicating that there are between 8 and 10 thousand questionable cases who are at home quarantine due to the inability to quarantine them in hospitals .
Al-Mousawi warns, in press statements, that the coming short period is the most dangerous in the course of dealing with the virus in Iraq. Experts from the Ministry of Health are quoted as saying to the crisis cell that “the worst possibility is that about 200,000 people are to be infected with the virus,” calling for the government to be patient in easing the lockdown measures for at least two weeks and reassessing the situation then.
After about 6 weeks of the lockdown, health and administrative officials confirm that “things are under control”, and that the risk of the virus spreading will decline as the lockdown continues for more weeks, but they avoid talking about the economic effects of the lockdown, which deprived hundreds of thousands of workers in the private sector of their sources of income.
They cannot find their Daily Food
“This does not mean success, nor it is going well,” said Hussein Abdullah (42 years old), as he stood at the doorstep of his house with two of his friends in the Shaab district of Baghdad. He continues: “There are thousands of people who do not go out to work, construction and restaurants workers, taxi drivers, street cart owners and many others.For more than a month they are all without an income, they were totally dependent on what they earn from their daily work. They cannot afford to buy their daily food today.”
Abdullah, an electrical engineer who works in the private sector and supports a family of nine, added: “Most of the workers in the private sector are now without work. It cannot continue like this. I spent all my savings; in few days I have to borrow or accept food baskets … I have never found myself in such a situation all my life.”
His neighbor, Jawad, interrupts him, while pointing to his mother, wife and two children to enter the house: “The government imposes a curfew , but it does not think about helping those who have lost their jobs, as in the rest of the world … Not all people are employees, I have been unemployed for a month, has the government thought about the fate of my family?”.
Jawad, who works as a taxi driver, adds: “Where is the government? We feel ashamed in front of our families and children, and I do not trust the virus will end. They were talking about days, but we have been under lockdown for more than a month.”
Tourist Season is Over
In Erbil, the situation is no different, says Khadr Alou, a young Yazidi from Sinjar who has worked for 4 years in a hotel in the capital of the Kurdistan region: “At the beginning of April, my colleagues and I were laid off from work. The hotel manager told us that the tourist season is over and there will be no customers. or tourists for few months … I do not know what to do. My family depends on the money I send them monthly.”
Khadr, decided to stay in Erbil, hoping to find another job. “My friends have returned to their homes. I decided to stay. There are five members of my family who depend on me, in addition to three orphans from the family of my brother who was killed during the ISIS attack on Sinjar in the summer of 2014.”
The hotel manager in which Khadr worked, which has more than 50 rooms, says, “It is a big problem for all workers in the service sector … The tourist season ended before it began, and as you can see the hotel is completely empty, and we cannot pay the workers for more than a month in the absence of customers”.
In a hall near the hotel, which was turned into a youth café, the service worker, Ziad, was sitting alone on a long sofa, watching the latest news of the spread of the virus.
He says, while the TV channel he was watching announces the discovery of new cases of infection in Erbil: “We have been without work for six weeks, and there is no hope for opening cafes soon, and the month of Ramadan will soon arrive… Three months without work is a disaster for me.”
He addresses the officials: “Those who imposed the total ban should have thought about our situation as well. Not all people are government employees.”
With the halt of tourism, the owners of tourism investment projects, not just workers, suffered great damage. The Sulaymaniyah Tourism Authority estimates the sector’s losses at about 100 million US dollars, with ten thousand workers losing their jobs.
The First Source of the Virus
On February 24, the government announced of the first “Corona” virus case in Najaf Governorate, while the reports indicated a large spread of the virus in Iran, whose borders with Iraq extend to more than 1,400 km and it contains thousands of Iraqis for the purpose of study, trade, tourism and visiting religious shrines.
This fact was dealt with great negligence, as Iraqi flights continued to bring in hundreds of returnees to the country without taking the required precautions such as quarantine, while the borders remained almost open for the return of thousands of Iraqis and for trade purposes.
In the last two weeks of February and throughout March, cases began to escalate in the religious governorates (Najaf and Karbala) and in those bordering Iran (Sulaymaniyah, Basra, and Erbil).
“This was a clear indication that Iran was the first source of the virus in Iraq, before the following cases came from European countries,” says Dalir Ahmed, a health worker. He adds: “Those provinces, along with Baghdad, which has a large population, still record the highest numbers of injuries, while the rest of the provinces have lower numbers, and cases are almost non-existent in the Sunni-majority provinces in western Iraq whose residents do not visit Iran.”
In Nineveh (400 km north of Baghdad), which includes about four million people, only five Corona cases were recorded. The internal medicine doctor, Silwan Muhammad Saeed, explains this by saying that :”Nineveh’s contact with areas that formed an epicenter for the pandemic like Iran is almost non-existent, and its airport, which was destroyed by the war, has not been rebuilt.”
Even with the discovery of dozens of cases of infection in mid-March, the authorities did not take decisive measures to close the country, or prevent thousands of visitors from reaching the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, north of Baghdad, under pressure from clerics, most notably Muqtada al-Sadr. After a tug of war about the feasibility of sterilizing religious shrines, the measures were tightened in the last week of March, and visitors to the shrines were included in the curfew.
“That was enough to spread the virus among hundreds of Iraqis,” says a Baghdad health official, who declined to be named. He continues: “The seriousness of the situation was not realized until Iran began announcing more than 100 deaths a day, and thousands of cases, including Iranian MPs and senior state officials.”
Aid to Millions of Affected People
With the outbreak of the virus and its pose as a great threat, and with the imposition of closures and strict curfews, about ten million Iraqis, who make up two million families, most of whom are earning families, suffer from poverty, according to the Supreme Committee for National Health and Safety.
In light of the delay of government’s actions, the voluntary popular effort emerged in the distribution of food baskets in various governorates, and many of the activists and protesters turned into voluntary relief groups.
Social media circulated many photos and videos that documented campaigns to distribute food baskets, including a campaign called “Sponsor an Orphan” in Baghdad. While the administrations of religious shrines were involved in the efforts to distribute food aid, before the government allocated 600 billion Iraqi dinars to be distributed to the needy, at a rate of 30 thousand Iraqi dinars per person, or about 22 US dollars.
On April 11, the Supreme Committee for National Health and Safety announced the launch of the “Grant for families qualified for government support due to the Corona Pandemic and the Curfew” by applying via a link that opens on mobile phones and personal computers. The application is made through the personal phone number of the head of the family according to the ration card.
It is required from the applicant that none of his family members receive a salary from the government, whether he is an employee, retired, or covered by the social protection network, or receive any salary or other income from the government. The grant does not include the wealthy people.
Special Pardon and Facilities
In another step to avoid the spread of the virus in prisons and detention centers, the criminal and investigations courts in Baghdad and the governorates have begun to release suspects and detainees on bail, according to the directives of the Supreme Judicial Council, which has ordered to take exceptional measures to limit the spread of the virus.
The caretaker government delivered the Presidency of the Republic a recommendation to issue a special Pardon for those convicted who completed half of their sentence or have less than a year of imprisonment remaining, or those sentenced to a prison sentence of a year or less, excluding crimes against the private right, except after the accuser has waived the personal right. Exceptions were also made for those convicted of committing international and terrorist crimes and violating state security, human trafficking crimes, possession of silenced weapons and fireworks, financial and administrative corruption, drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnappings, theft, flittering of public money, crimes of smuggling antiquities, counterfeiting of currency and forgery of official documents.
University academic Dr. Saddam Khazal questions if this special pardon will reduce the crowding in Iraqi prisons due to the many exceptions contained therein. In addition, there is a contradiction in one of its clauses, exemplified by the exception of crimes of financial and administrative corruption, and then it allowed the possibility to include the pardon for perpetrators of crimes of deliberately wasting money in the event of paying the due amounts before his release.
Khazal said: “The crimes of deliberately wasting money are among the crimes of financial and administrative corruption stipulated in Article 340 of the Iraqi Penal Code 111 of 1969, so it cannot be excluded.”
The Bar Association, in turn, demanded the issuance of a general pardon for those convicted, excluding the perpetrators of terrorist crimes, and a distinction between the political offense and the terrorist crime from the ordinary crime,and it called for non-Iraqi convicts in prisons to complete the terms of their sentences in their own countries, by adopting international agreements that govern this matter.
In the Kurdistan region, the Supreme Judicial Council announced the release of 826 prisoners in the governorates of Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah, who were included in the government decision to “Conditional Release” to prevent the spread of the virus among the inmates in prisons that receive numbers far exceeding international standards.
Despite the lockdown decisions and penalties for violators with a fine or arrest, violations continued under the sway of social customs. In Erbil, funeral homes were held in more than one neighborhood of the city and in Daratu district (72 km north), which caused dozens of cases, according to Saman Barzanji, Minister of Health in the region ,which forced the authorities to close the neighborhood completely.
Ministry of Interior decided to impose sanctions on the organizers of the funeral, while the Public Prosecution announced that it would press charges against the infected in the same funeral home after they recover.
But others chose not to hold funeral homes, and to be satisfied with receiving phone calls and text messages through social media, such as Hajj Mahmoud family in Dohuk,whose son says, “We appreciate the traditions, which focus on showing social cohesion in times of grief, but with the risk of corona infection, we decided not to accept direct condolences for the death of our father, even from the closest people ,for their own safety.”
Most of the families who were mourned by the loss of one of their sons chose to accept condolences from relatives by phone, while condolences are accepted from the public through social media, while maintaining the Iraqi way of announcing the death with a black cloth banner written on it the full name of the deceased and the date of his death.
Ahmed Abdel Karim, a resident of Souk Al-Shuyoukh district (31 km southeast of Nasiriyah), counts a total of 720 comments of condolences on a Facebook post in which he announced the death of his uncle, and he had to respond to each one of them.
He says that his family missed the usual ritual by setting up a long tent and standing to greet mourners and bid them farewell with bursts of kisses and outstretched dining tables, “This is how we usually express gratitude to those who stood beside us in our grief and our pride in our deceased by doing something worthy of him and his memory. But Corona and our fear of causing harm to people made us accept consolation with what was available, and we may do something else symbolic to compensate for that after the curfew is lifted.”
A Hospital in place of a Book Fair
In light of the weak government capacity to secure the requirements for facing the virus, in most of the country’s governorates personal initiatives have been launched from the wealthy merchants and activists to build field hospitals dedicated to receiving cases of infection and equipping them with the necessary beds and medical equipment in a pre-emptive effort for the possible development of cases, in addition to providing some supplies to medical personnel.
In Mosul, volunteer teams delivered masks, medical gloves, thermometers, and some other supplies to the Mosul Military Maternity Hospitals.
Activist Safwan al-Madani says that the Ministry of Health’s support is very limited to Nineveh, and that service workers in hospitals have not received their salaries for recent months, which prompted his volunteer team to distribute food baskets to some of them and pay salaries to others so they can continue their work.
Among the initiatives is the transformation of the halls of Sami Abdul Rahman Park in Erbil, which in April every year is packed with visitors to the Erbil International Book Fair, into a hospital with 250 beds after the exhibition hall was divided into sectors and tents were set up equipped with basic necessities.
The hospital was equipped with the support of the exhibition management, local companies, charity donors, and other parties, including the “Barzani” Charitable Foundation and the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.
In the midst of the war to confront Corona in a conservative society, the medical staff entered into a multi-faceted challenge. They must sacrifice isolating themselves from their families, caring for the sick, and conducting sterilization campaigns in addition to raising awareness and convincing infected families of the importance of isolation and quarantine ,which should not be looks at as a defect, a flaw, or a deprivation of freedom.
Dr. Jimin Ahmed (33 years old), who works about 12 hours a day, says that she has isolated herself from her family and her two young children, since the first infection with Corona virus was recorded in Sulaymaniyah on the fourth of March.
Jimin, who joined the anti-virus teams and participated in campaigns to sterilize public places and then took care of patients in “Shahid Aso” Hospital, was overwhelmed by her fatigue, saying, “It is the most difficult period in my life, not because I am a mother who misses her children, but because I daily face and go through emotional experiences with the infected people. ”
For weeks, dealing with the infected and persuading them to follow quarantine and isolation procedures was a sensitive issue, while social media circulated a video of a person refusing to hand over his mother to carry out the examination and quarantine process and threatening health teams and the police to resort to the force of arms to prevent them.
Another family of about thirty individuals in the city of Kut in Wasit governorate, threatened to commit mass suicide if the quarantine imposed on them continues following the death of the head of the family as a result of being infected with the virus.
One of the infected says, justifying the refusal of the idea of quarantine: “Society is ruthless, even the one who dies of Corona virus is subjected to discrimination and is buried in a secluded place and in a humiliating manner … Society does not accept the idea of someone being infected with the virus, everyone will try to avoid him … I fear that this will continue even after the person is cured with talk about the possibility of the virus returning to the infected and recovered.
“Imagine how much stress you can live with. To lose your father, and everyone looks at you with fear, and the concerned authorities come to quarantine your mother and the rest of the family … this is unbearable”.
Curfew and Breach
With the daily recording of new cases of infection, and amid indications that the curfew has been extended until the beginning of May 2020, the number of complainants is escalating, the cases of violations of the curfew are increasing, and the local streets and alleys are witnessing an increase in the number of people leaving their homes without necessary purpose.
Baghdad Operations Command announced on April 12 that it had arrested 21,089 people, in violation of the curfew instructions, and had seized 1,259 cars and motorcycles, and had recorded 47,984 fines, since March 17.
Mukhtar Kamel, a computer graduate who works in a computer and mobile phone repair shop in Baghdad, commented, “It is normal for this to happen. People are tired of sitting in their homes, they can’t handle it anymore.”
Kamel, who supports a family of five, added, “I have been without work for about two months, how will I manage my family’s affairs? … When the government decides to impose the curfew to protect me, it must provide assistance to my family before it holds me accountable because I violated the law.”
Kamel expresses his pessimism: “The matter will not end within weeks, every day there are new cases, so you find additional numbers who violate the curfew. My neighbor, “Abbas” who works in the construction field, went out today, hoping to find a job, he risked his life and may get arrested in order to secure some money for his family, whose identity and existence the government does not know of.
Far in the north of Iraq at the Turkish border, Bassam Taha is waiting for his turn to complete the transaction of entering goods through the Ibrahim al-Khalil border crossing. “We were initially afraid of people coming from Iran with the spread of the virus there,” he says with concern, pointing to a flood of trucks entering from Turkey. Today, we are afraid of people coming from Turkey, where thousands of cases are recorded daily.
“It is a dilemma. Closing the borders is not possible, as we import most of our basic needs from outside the country … Keeping the borders open means keeping the possibility of the virus getting in,” he adds.
The report was produced with the support of the “NIRIJ” network for Investigative Journalism and was co-prepared by the Baghdad Investigative Team