On April 1, Iraq’s health minister, Adila Al-Aboudi of the Dawa Tandheem party from the State of Law Coalition, was summoned to parliament for questioning by Sadrist MP, Awad Al-Awadi. Despite hailing from one of the most criticized ministries, Aboudi survived a vote of no confidence due to political motives to prevent the Sadrists from gaining a partisan victory for their “reform movement” instead of a true vote on the minister’s performance in office. Nevertheless, the blame for corruption and mishandling of the health ministry is borne not only by Aboudi, but also by past health ministers and the culture of the government altogether.
The state of Iraq’s health ministry began to deteriorate after devastating wars under Saddam Hussein and the crippling sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s. While the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime saw sanctions lifted, violence and wars persisted, keeping Iraqi hospitals in dire condition. This remains the case despite increased foreign aid to support the Iraqi government to combat ISIL and rebuild state institutions.
Like all segments of the Iraqi state, a great deal of mismanagement is due to corruption. The health sector is no different in that respect. However, various areas of government have outperformed others due to their impact on government officials themselves. When a government service affects a politician’s life, he or she will tend to the issue immediately. With regards to healthcare, few politicians visit Iraqi hospitals and facilities to look after their health. Therefore, Iraqi hospitals and health services altogether remain in poor condition because there is little incentive for corrupt politicians to improve it.
Iraqi politicians have access to foreign medical care in Britain, Germany and Lebanon and thus are not restricted to struggling Iraqi hospitals. Former Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki during his first term travelled to London for medical attention. Did he stop to ask himself why he was not treated at a hospital in Baghdad? If he and other politicians were forced to like the average citizen, I do not think hospitals in Iraq would remain in the condition they are in today.
Even in the Kurdistan region, public hospitals are crumbling. The economic crisis has severely cut doctors’ wages to a fraction of amounts paid before the war with ISIL. This has forced many medical practitioners to leave, which follows the trend of doctors fleeing Iraq due to violence or lack of sufficient salary. Not only are doctors hard to come by, but the necessary medication prescribed to patients is missing because of the lack of regulation by the state. This has led to a notorious black market for medication in Iraq.
In 2014 I went to Baghdad’s Karama hospital and to a private hospital in Erbil and you could not compare the two. I am told that Karama was one of the best hospitals in Iraq back in the 1970s, but if that was the case, it no longer is. More recently in April 2017, I visited the Kadhimiya hospital and other than the flashy sign above the entrance, its dismal conditions were similar to that of Karama’s from three years ago. For Iraqis that have the means, expensive private hospitals in Baghdad and Erbil or abroad to Lebanon and India are private healthcare destinations.
One hopes to never have to visit a hospital, but it’s undoubtedly a vital resource for a state. Especially considering Iraq’s turbulent modern history, hospitals and healthcare are a significant part of life. The health sector cannot afford to remain in the dilapidation it is currently in. The entire political class must be held accountable for this situation, especially Dawa Tandheem who have had the last three years to improve conditions. The minister’s excuse of economic recession is unacceptable, especially when healthcare costs for Iraqis continue to rise annually.
If politicians had to rush to local hospitals when they fell ill, instead of the standard photo op to visit wounded soldiers or car bomb causalities, the health sector would look much different in Iraq today.
Even with improved infant mortality rates since 2003, the state continues to struggle to provide immunizations for nearly 6 million children. Citizens are forced to travel abroad for treatment and this is a strong indication that the health sector has not improved to the level required to receive adequate medical attention within Iraq. This state of affairs is entirely unacceptable and must be remedied by forthcoming governments.
Hamzeh Hadad is an Iraqi writer and commentator. He holds a Bachelor of Arts with honours from the University of King’s College.