It’s been a gut-wrenching week for Iraqis. The Al-Hussein Hospital in the city of Nasiriyah exploded on Monday night, leaving 92 people dead and another 50 injured. Many patients were on life support when the fire raged into their beds. It’s the second COVID-19 hospital to explode in Iraq in the last three months. Residents and politicians are blaming the tragedy on widespread corruption and poor leadership, but it’s not clear who should take the blame.
Exploding Oxygen Tanks
The fire broke out late Monday night in the intensive care unit, where COVID-19 patients were being treated. The hospital was set up to care for infected patients at the start of the pandemic. It also had multiple quarantine stations onsite. Officials believe the fire was caused by exploding oxygen tanks.
These tanks can combust if used improperly. Oxygen is considered an oxidizer, which means it supports the process of combustion. Adding oxygen to a fire will only make it grow. The tanks can explode if there is oxygen enrichment leaking from the container, if they are used with materials that aren’t compatible with oxygen, if the oxygen comes in contact with electricity currents or sparks, or if they are handled incorrectly or carelessly.
Experts say these kinds of incidents tend to be rare in the US, but they do happen, considering how often oxygen cylinders are used.
The fire at Al-Hussein was eventually extinguished, but not until it had decimated much of the facility’s COVID-19 ward.
Mohsen Sabr Obeid, a federal civil servant, lives near the hospital. He recently spoke about his experience through an interpreter. “I didn’t know what to do. I felt the flames on my face and tried every way to enter the building to save even just one soul, but I couldn’t because the fire was so strong and the smoke even stronger. I could hear the screams of people inside, but I couldn’t reach them.”
Iraq President Barham Salhi was quick to blame the incident on “corruption and mismanagement,” while calling for accountability. “A strict review of the performance of institutions and the protection of citizens is necessary,” Salih said.
Soon after the fire broke out, hundreds of angry protesters took to the streets to voice their frustration and outrage as the building continued to burn.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said, “What happened yesterday in the city of Nasiriyah represents a deep wound in the conscience of all Iraqis,” during a recent cabinet meeting. He
added that the “incident indicates a structural defect in the administrative structure of the Iraqi state,” and that he “will not tolerate the corrupt or those who manipulate the lives of citizens, whatever their characteristics or affiliations.”
Kadhimi also called for the removal and detention of the Director of Health in Dhi Qar, along with the director of the hospital and the director of civil defense in the province.
The government says it has initiated a sweeping investigation into the incident. The province will also observe three days of mourning for the victims of the fire.
A Pattern of Corruption
This is the second Iraqi hospital to explode during the pandemic. In April, the Ibn al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad exploded after oxygen tanks caught fire, killing 82 people.
The most recent fire will only make it harder for the country to combat the pandemic.
“The catastrophe of Al-Hussein Hospital in Dhi Qar, and before that, Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad, is the result of persistent corruption and mismanagement that underestimated the lives of Iraqis and prevented reforming the performance of institutions,” Salhi wrote on Twitter.
Despite the recent calls for justice and accountability, the Iraqi government has a poor track record when it comes to improving infrastructure and healthcare services.
Renad Mansour, senior fellow in the Middle East program of the Chatham House in the UK, says corruption among Iraqi leaders has led to unsafe government services.
“You have political elite that have become incredibly wealthy through politically sanctioned corruption, but haven’t done much to build a state, to build a country that could provide the very basic services for their people,” Mansour said.
Doctors say it’s not uncommon for exposed electricity cables to visibly spark from the ceiling in run-down wards, a clear fire hazard. Many wards also don’t have smoke detectors or sprinklers in case of a fire. Maj. Gen. Kadhim Bohan, a spokesman for Iraq’s civil defense force, says his organization regularly asks for money to make repairs, but “No one is listening,” he said.
In 2019, the country spent just 2.5% of its $106.5 billion budget on health-related services.
Iraq is still in the middle of a deadly surge. The country recorded 60,000 new coronavirus cases in the last week, and just 1% of the population is fully vaccinated.