More than 80 people died Sunday in a fire that ripped through an Iraqi COVID-19 hospital, sparking anger and prompting the suspension of top officials in a country with a long-dilapidated health infrastructure.
Many of the victims were on respirators and were suffocated or burned in the smoke and flames when the blaze at eastern Baghdad’s Ibn al-Khatib hospital started with an explosion caused by “a fault in the storage of oxygen cylinders”, medical sources said.
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The health ministry said 82 people were killed and 110 wounded, while the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said 28 of the victims were patients who had to be taken off ventilators to escape the flames.
The blaze spread quickly across multiple floors in the middle of the night, as dozens of relatives were at the bedsides of the 30 patients in the hospital’s intensive care unit where the most severe COVID-19 cases are treated, a medical source said.
“The hospital had no fire protection system and false ceilings allowed the flames to spread to highly flammable products,” Iraq’s civil defence services said.
Health minister suspended
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi suspended Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi – who is backed by the powerful Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr – amid angry calls on social media for him to be sacked, as part of a probe that would also include the governor of Baghdad.
Kadhemi also declared three days of national mourning, while parliament said it would devote its Monday session to the tragedy.
Witnesses said the evacuation was slow and chaotic, with patients and their relatives crammed into stairwells as they scrambled for exits.
“It was the people (civilians) who got the wounded out,” Amir, 35, told AFP, saying he saved his hospitalised brothers “by the skin of his teeth”.
Iraq’s hospitals have been worn down by decades of conflict and poor investment, with shortages of medicines and hospital beds.
But many also said negligence and endemic corruption were to blame for the deadly inferno. (AFP)