Disinfecting shops in Baghdad's Bayaa neighbourhood as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19. Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images.

Disinfecting shops in Baghdad's Bayaa neighbourhood as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19. Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images.

Iraq is a country already in turmoil, suffering fallout from the major military escalation between the US and Iran, mass protests calling for an end to the post-2003 political system, and a violent government crackdown killing more than 600 and wounding almost 30,000 - all presided over by a fragmented political elite unable to agree upon a new prime minister following Adil abd al-Mehdi’s resignation back in November.

COVID-19 introduces yet another threat to the fragile political order, as the virus exposes Iraq’s ineffective public health system dismantled through decades of conflict, corruption and poor governance.

Iraqi doctors are making every effort to prepare for the worst-case scenario, but they do so with huge structural challenges. The Ministry of Health lacks enough ICU beds, human resources, ventilators, and personal protective equipment (PPE). Bogged down in bureaucracy, the ministry is struggling to process procurements of equipment and medications, and some doctors have made purchases themselves.

But individual efforts can only go so far as many Iraqi doctors are concerned the official numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases do not reflect the complexity of the situation on the ground.

The ministry relies predominately upon patients self-presenting at designated public hospitals and has only just begun community-based testing in areas of suspected clusters. Reliance on self-presentation requires a level of trust between citizens and state institutions, which is at a historic low. This gap in trust – 17 years in the making – puts Iraq’s COVID-19 response particularly at risk.

Iraq’s myriad vulnerabilities

Certain social and political factors leave Iraq uniquely exposed to the coronavirus. The country’s vulnerability is tied directly to its social, religious and economic interconnections with Iran, an epicenter of the pandemic.

Exchanges between Iran and Iraq are concentrated in two regions, with strong cross-border links between Iraqi and Iranian Kurds in the north-east, and Iraqi and Iranian Shia pilgrims in the south. Cross-border circulation of religious pilgrims is particularly concerning, as they can result in mass ritual gatherings.

The high number of confirmed cases in the southern and northern peripheries of the country puts a spotlight on Iraq's failure in managing healthcare. The post-2003 government has failed to either rebuild a robust centralized healthcare system, or to pave the way for a federalized model.

Caught in an ambiguous middle between a centralized and federalized model, coordination across provinces and hospitals during the coronavirus crisis has neither reflected strong management from Baghdad nor robust ownership at the governorate level.

This problem is part of a wider challenge of managing centre-periphery relations and federalism, which since 2003 has not worked effectively. Baghdad has provided all 18 provinces with instructions on testing and treatment, but only a handful have enough resources to put them into practice. Advanced testing capacity is limited to the five provinces with WHO-approved centers, with the remaining 13 sending swabs to Baghdad.

But the greatest challenge to Iraq’s COVID-19 response is the dramatic deterioration of state-society relations. Studies reveal a profound societal distrust of Iraq’s public healthcare institutions, due to corruption and militarization of medical institutions. Numerous videos have recently circulated of families refusing to turn over sick members - particularly women - to medical teams visiting households with confirmed or suspected cases.

As medical anthropologist Omar Dewachi notes, the ‘moral economy of quarantine’ in Iraq is heavily shaped by a history of war and its impact on the relationship between people and the state. Although local and international media often interpret this reluctance to undergo quarantine as a matter of social or tribal norms, distrusting the state leads many families to refuse quarantine because they believe it resembles a form of arrest.

The management of coronavirus relies upon an overt convergence between medical institutions and security forces as the federal police collaborate with the Ministry of Health to impose curfews and enforce quarantine. This means that, troublingly, the same security establishment which violently cracked down on protesters and civil society activists is now the teeth behind Iraq’s COVID-19 response.

Without trust between society and the political class, civil society organizations and protest movements have directed their organizational structure towards awareness-raising across Iraq. Key religious authorities such as Grand Ayatollah Sistani have called for compliance to the curfew and mobilized charitable institutions.

However, such efforts will not be enough to make up for the lack of governance at the level of the state. In the short-term, Iraq’s medical professionals and institutions are in dire need of technical and financial support. In the long-term, COVID-19 is a lesson that Iraq’s once robust public healthcare system needs serious investment and reform.

COVID-19 may prove to be another catalyst challenging the ‘muddle through’ logic of the Iraqi political elite. International actors have largely been complicit in this logic, directing aid and technical support towards security forces and political allies in the interest of short-term stability, and neglecting institutions which Iraqis rely on for health, education, and well-being.

The response to the crisis requires cooperation and buy-in of a population neglected by 17 years of failed governance. This is a seminal event that may push the country to the brink, exposing and stirring underlying tensions in state-society relations.

This analysis was produced as part of the Iraq Initiative.