UPDATE: 82 killed in Iraq COVID hospital fire, 110 wounded: ministry

Flames 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 most severe COVID-19 cases are treated.

An Iraqi woman walks past a billboard bearing the name of Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad, on 25 April 2021, after a fire erupted in the medical facility reserved for the most severe COVID-19 cases. Picture: AFP

BAGHDAD – At least 82 people died and 110 were wounded in a Baghdad COVID-19 hospital fire overnight Sunday, the Iraqi interior ministry said in a new toll.

"The interior ministry announces the death of 82 people and injury of 110 in the Ibn al-Khatib fire accident," it said in a statement carried by state media.

A fire that ravaged a COVID-19 hospital in the Iraqi capital sparked angry calls for the sacking of officials, in a country with long-dilapidated health infrastructure.

Earlier reports put the death toll at 58.

The blaze at Baghdad's Ibn al-Khatib hospital started with an explosion caused by "a fault in the storage of oxygen cylinders", medical sources told AFP.

Flames 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 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," the civil defence said.

"The majority of the victims died because they had to be moved and were taken off ventilators, while the others were suffocated by the smoke," it added.

At least 23 deaths were reported in the immediate aftermath of the fire, with an official toll of 58 announced earlier on Sunday on Twitter by Ali Bayati, a member of Iraq's Human Rights Commission.

"The number of deaths as a result of the Ibn al-Khatib hospital fire was 58, of which 28 were on ventilators" being treated for COVID-19, Bayati said.

Medical and security sources told AFP some 50 others were injured in the blaze, and the civil defence said it "rescued 90 people out of 120 patients and their relatives".

Videos on social media showed firefighters battling to put out the blaze as patients and their relatives tried to flee the building.

"It was the people 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 in medicines and hospital beds.

The incident sparked outrage on social media and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khademi called for an investigation into the cause of the blaze, and declared three days of national mourning.

NEGLIGENCE

After daybreak, dozens of tall oxygen cylinders that had been evacuated could be seen lined up outside the building, alongside gurneys and scattered debris, an AFP photograph said.

More than 200 patients in all were rescued, according to the health ministry, which pledged to release an official toll of the dead and wounded later.

The fire -- which according to several sources was caused by negligence often linked to endemic corruption in Iraq -- sparked anger on social media, with a hashtag demanding the health minister be sacked trending on Twitter.

Baghdad Governor Mohammed Jaber called on the health ministry "to establish a commission of enquiry so that those who did not do their jobs may be brought to justice".

In a statement, the government's human rights commission said the incident was "a crime against patients exhausted by COVID-19 who put their lives in the hands of the health ministry and its institutions and instead of being treated, perished in flames".

The commission called on the prime minister to fire Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi and "bring him to justice".

Kadhemi responded by calling for "an investigation" -- echoing President Barham Saleh and parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi -- and said he wanted results "within 24 hours".

The prime minister also suspended the health director for the eastern sector of Baghdad and the head of Ibn al-Khatib, as well as the hospital's heads of security and technical maintenance teams.

They are being questioned and nobody, Kadhemi said, will be released "until those who have done wrong are brought to justice".

MOUNTING CORONAVIRUS CASES

The UN top representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, expressed "shock" at the tragedy and called "for stronger protection measures to ensure that such a disaster cannot reoccur".

On Wednesday, the number of COVID-19 cases in Iraq surpassed one million, the highest of any Arab state.

The health ministry has recorded more than 15,000 deaths since the country's first infections were reported in February 2020, and has carried out around 40,000 tests daily from a population of 40 million.

Rather than go to overcrowded or run-down hospitals, patients who can afford it have often set up oxygen tanks for their use at home.

Iraq rolled out its vaccination campaign last month and has received nearly 650,000 doses of different vaccines -- the majority by donation or through the Covax scheme.

Around 300,000 people had received at least one dose as of Wednesday, the ministry said.

Health authorities have faced an uphill battle to convince Iraqis to get vaccinated, in the face of widespread scepticism over the jab and public reluctance to wear masks since the start of the pandemic.

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