World

Iraqi health officials say 92 dead in coronavirus hospital ward fire

The death toll from a fire at a hospital coronavirus ward in Iraq climbed to 92 on Tuesday as anguished relatives buried their loved ones and lashed out at the government over the country's second such disaster in less than three months.

It was the second time a large fire has killed coronavirus patients in an Iraqi hospital this year

In the central Iraqi city of Najaf on Tuesday, Iraqis mourn relatives who died in a massive fire that engulfed a coronavirus isolation ward of Al-Hussein hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah the day before. (Ali Najafi/AFP/Getty Images)

The death toll from a fire at a hospital coronavirus ward in Iraq climbed to 92 on Tuesday as anguished relatives buried their loved ones and lashed out at the government over the country's second such disaster in less than three months.

Health officials said scores of others were also injured in the fire that torched the coronavirus ward of al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the city of Nasiriyah on Monday.

The tragedy cast a spotlight on what many have decried as widespread negligence and mismanagement in Iraq's hospitals after decades of war and sanctions.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi chaired an emergency meeting in the wake of the fire and ordered the suspension and arrest of the health director in Dhi Qar province, where Nasiriyah is located, as well as the director of the hospital and the city's director of civil defence. A government investigation was also launched.

The prime minister called the catastrophe "a deep wound in the consciousness of all Iraqis."

Blankets are strewn among burnt hospital beds at the ravaged coronavirus isolation ward of Al-Hussein hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. (Asad Niazi/AFP/Getty Images)

In the holy city of Najaf, the dead were laid to rest. Mourning families stood over coffins in the mosque to say one last prayer.

Their tears were tinged with anger, with some saying the disaster could have been prevented. They blamed both the provincial government and the central government in Baghdad.

'How terrified they must have been'

Ahmed Resan, who witnessed the blaze, said it began with smoke. "But everyone ran away — the workers and even the police. A few minutes later there was an explosion," he said. He said firefighters arrived an hour later.

"The whole state system has collapsed, and who paid the price? The people inside here. These people have paid the price," said Haidar al-Askari.

Ali Khalid, 20, a volunteer who dashed to the scene, said he found the bodies of two young girls locked in embrace.

"How terrified they must have been, they died hugging each other," he said.

A man inspects the damage at the site where a fire broke out at al-Hussein Teaching Hospital, sweeping through a coronavirus ward, in Nassiriya, Iraq, early Tuesday. (Essam al-Sudani/Reuters)

Overnight, firefighters and rescuers — many with just flashlights and using blankets to extinguish small fires still smouldering in places — had frantically worked searching through the ward in the darkness. As dawn broke, bodies covered with sheets were laid on the ground outside the hospital.

Earlier, officials had said the fire was caused by an electric short circuit, but have not provided more details. Another official said the blaze erupted when an oxygen cylinder exploded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

The new ward, opened just three months ago, contained 70 beds.

It was the second time a large fire has killed coronavirus patients in an Iraqi hospital this year. At least 82 people died at Ibn al-Khateeb hospital in Baghdad in April when an oxygen tank exploded, sparking the blaze.

Country experiencing another virus surge

That incident brought to light widespread negligence and systemic mismanagement in Iraq's hospitals. Doctors have decried lax safety rules, especially around oxygen cylinders.

Iraq is in the midst of another severe COVID-19 surge. New cases per day peaked last week at 9,000. Iraq's war-crippled health system has struggled to contain the virus. The country has recorded over 17,000 deaths and 1.4 million confirmed cases.

Fear and widespread mistrust of the public health sector have kept many from seeking hospital care.

People react as the body of a victim is loaded onto a vehicle outside al-Hussain hospital after the fire. (Essam al-Sudani/Reuters)

Ali Abbas Salman, who rushed to remove his COVID-19-stricken father from the facility after the fire broke out, swore he wouldn't take the older man back to a hospital.

"He wants me to take him home. He said, 'It's better to die of coronavirus than being burned alive,"' Salman said.

The disaster is likely to stoke public discontent toward Iraq's political establishment ahead of October elections, said Marsin Alshammary, an Iraq specialist at the Brookings Institution. Nasiriyah has been at the heart of past revolutions in Iraq.

"Given this entire atmosphere built around the city," she said, "you can imagine that something as tragic as this event, where people who were already vulnerable were killed in a needless accident, will create more public anger."

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