WHO expects sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in Iraq

The World Health Organization (WHO) in Iraq said it expects a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases within the next week.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – In a public statement on Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) in Iraq said it expects a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases within the next week.

On Monday, the Iraqi government reported over 630 COVID-19 cases with 46 deaths since the start of the outbreak in the country on Feb. 24, 2020.

According to the WHO, this makes Iraq the country with the second-highest number of COVID-19 related deaths across the Eastern Mediterranean region after Iran.

Lack of tests

But the real numbers are likely much higher as few of the country’s 40 million people have been tested, AFP reported.

David M. Witty, an adjunct professor at Norwich University, warned that it is impossible to know the true extent of the spread of the virus.

“Testing appears to be limited, and many of the ruling elite are consumed in forming the next government and dealing with escalating tensions between the US and Iranian backed militias,” he told Kurdistan 24.

The disease is expected to rise on a steep curve, similar to what happened in Europe and the United States.

The WHO press statement said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases would rise within the coming 10 days due to the increase in lab testing capacity with three new laboratories becoming operational for COVID-19 testing in Najaf, Basra, and Baghdad.

This has increased the numbers of tested cases to over 4,500 daily compared to a maximum of 100 per day a few weeks ago. 

Continued mass gatherings

The lack of testing is not the only reason for a predicted increase in COVID-19 cases. Mass anti-government protests in Baghdad and religious mass gatherings continued until recently despite a major countrywide lockdown first imposed by Baghdad on March 22.

In a recent interview with al-Iraqia, WHO representative in Iraq Dr. Adham Ismail confirmed the organization expects a spike in coronavirus cases due to non-compliance with the decisions made by the Iraqi Ministry of Health to prevent mass gatherings including religious pilgrimage to holy sites in Iraq.

According to Iraq analyst Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, many Iraqis have refused to follow the curfew laws to try to stop the spread of the virus.

“In Baghdad alone, thousands have been arrested by the police for violations. It is only making the situation worse,” he said.

This is in stark contrast with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that has been  praised by the WHO for enacting measures in line with its instructions.

Read More: WHO praises Kurdistan Region’s anti-coronavirus efforts

WHO official Adnan Nawar told local media on March 19 that the “citizens in the Kurdistan Region are more committed to the instructions, especially concerning the curfew, in comparison to the other Iraqi provinces.”

So far, there have been 162 confirmed cases of the disease in the Kurdistan Region, including two deaths.

Iran ties

Another factor that may contribute to an increase in COVID-19 cases in Iraq is Baghdad’s close ties with the governments of Iran and Syria.

According to AFP, many had feared a potential influx of cases from neighboring Iran, where the first fatal cases were already reported in February.

Iran’s Health Ministry reported 41,495 coronavirus cases with 2,757 deaths from the disease, the official IRNA news agency reported on Monday.

Although Iraq closed its border crossings with Iran, it is possible that Iran has brought coronavirus to Iraq through predominantly Shia militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

One well-informed Iraqi-American earlier told Kurdistan 24 that “Iranian-backed elements have a lot of cases, because they travel to Iran and interact with Iranians visiting Iraq.”

Read More: Lebanon limits travel to allies, Iran and Syria, over coronavirus fears

Indeed, the WHO confirmed the “majority of confirmed cases have a travel history to infected countries like Iran, China, and Europe.”     

Furthermore, Reuters reported on Sunday that some Shia pilgrims returning to Iraq from Syria had tested positive for coronavirus.

The WHO said it would continue to monitor the situation closely and is coordinating with Baghdad to provide support.

Wing said another problem for Baghdad is the slump in oil prices that hit government revenues as a result of the Russian-Saudi oil price war.

“This has left the Iraqi government in the red. It is running over a billion-dollar deficit each month.”

Thus, when the Iraqi Health Ministry asked for emergency funds it was turned down due to the lack of finances available. “It had to resort to asking for donations and has received little,” Wing added.

“If more people are infected, the government will be severely limited in its ability to respond,” he concluded.

Elsewhere, Iraq expert David M. Witty warned that it is possible Iraqi hospitals “will be overwhelmed if the virus spreads to the extent we are seeing in Iran, Italy, and the US.”

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany