BAGHDAD — A fire sparked by an exploding oxygen cylinder killed at least 82 people, many of them Covid-19 patients, at a Baghdad hospital late Saturday, the latest example of the pandemic’s devastating impact on a country riddled with corruption, mismanagement and a legacy of decrepit infrastructure.
The hospital, a facility dedicated to Covid-19 patients in one of Baghdad’s poorer neighborhoods, had no smoke detectors, sprinkler system or fire hoses, said Maj. Gen. Khadhim Bohan, the head of Iraq’s civil defense forces. The fire spread quickly because of flammable material used in false ceilings in the intensive care ward, he said.
“If there had been smoke detectors, the situation would have been totally different,” General Bohan told the state-run Iraqiya TV.
Some of the victims were older patients on ventilators who could not move from their beds when the fire started, officials said.
A witness quoted by Reuters news agency said that patients and medical workers had jumped out of second-story windows to escape the flames. Some relatives outside the hospital ran back in to try to rescue their loved ones, Reuters reported.
At least 110 people were injured, an interior ministry spokesman said.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi called the fire a crime and ordered an investigation within 24 hours into possible negligence at the hospital, the Ibn al-Khatib. He ordered the detention for questioning of the health director for the area of Baghdad, where the hospital is located. The hospital’s director and its head of engineering and maintenance were also ordered detained.
President Barham Salih said the tragedy was a “result of the accumulated destruction of state institutions due to corruption and mismanagement,” in a post on Twitter. “Showing pain and sympathy with our martyrs and injured sons is not enough without strenuous accountability for the negligent.”
Iraq last week surpassed one million reported Covid cases since the pandemic began, and the country of 39 million is in the midst of a ferocious second wave of infections. New daily cases recently hit a record of more than 8,000.
The health ministry has attributed the resurgent infection rates to citizens, businesses and institutions that are almost completely disregarding coronavirus precautions.
Despite billions of dollars spent to restore the country’s health care system since 2003, the health ministry oversees a largely dysfunctional system in which relatives provide oxygen and medication in many hospitals and there are ongoing maintenance problems.
The health care system was devastated by more than a decade of U.S.-led international sanctions against Saddam Hussein starting in the 1990s. Corruption has also contributed to ongoing problems within most government ministries.
Nermeen al-Mufti and Awadh al-Taiee contributed reporting.