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Coronavirus: Medical workers warn of 'disaster' if pandemic hits Iraq's Sinjar region

Health and medical facilities are almost entirely dependent on foreign support since 2014 takeover by Islamic State group
Damaged buildings in northern Iraqi town of Sinjar (AFP)

Iraq's conflict-ravaged Sinjar region may become a "disaster area" if the coronavirus pandemic spreads there, health and aid workers warned.

The region in northern Iraq has struggled to recover from what the UN has a dubbed a genocide in 2014, when the Islamic State (IS) group swept across the area and massacred thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority.

The intervention of air strikes and fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) eventually led to the governorate being retaken from IS, but control of the area has remained contested since then.

In addition, thousands of people remain housed in international displaced people (IDP) camps, including on Sinjar mountain.

Hussein Rasho, a doctor who was working in Sinjar until 10 days ago, said that although there had been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, the conditions in the area mean the impact would be devastating.

"There is no good care from the Iraqi government. All of the funding and facilities are coming from international organisations and sometimes local organisations," he told Middle East Eye.

"If an outbreak happens, it will be a disaster area.”

A general view shows a make-shift camp for displaced Iraqi people from the Yazidi community, on Mount Sinjar (AFP)
Makeshift camp for displaced Iraqi people from Yazidi community on Mount Sinjar (AFP)

Rasho, who is now prevented from accessing Sinjar by a government-imposed countrywide lockdown, said there were two main hospitals in the district left standing after the IS rampage: Sinuny Hospital and Sinjar Hospital.

There are only about 20 beds in each hospital, and both remain reliant on foreign organisations for resources and equipment.

One organisation providing support in Sinjar is Nadia's Initiative, which was established by the former IS slavery victim Nadia Murad.

The NGO has been involved in distributing food and protective equipment in the district, as well as carrying out a disinfectant campaign in towns and villages.

Still, much of the work - including building hospitals and the disinfectant campaign - has been put on hold as a result of the lockdown, said Executive Director Abid Shamdeen.

"Lack of hospital beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment there is a problem as soon as the virus hits - and of course we don’t know whether there are cases now because there is no testing," he told MEE.

"So our hope is that the international community and hopefully the World Health Organisation (WHO) in coordination with Iraqi and Kurdish authorities will put specific measures in place to get some resources there."

Porous border infection risk

Areas in southern Iraq have been the hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak, particularly the cities of Najaf and Karbala, which regularly see visits by Iranian pilgrims.

Iran has been one of the countries worst affected globally by the outbreak, with official figures putting the death toll at 3,294, with 53,183 infected.

By comparison, Iraq has only recorded 772 infections and 54 deaths . Still, a report by Reuters on Thursday suggested the actual figures may be substantially higher. Iraqi authorities later condemned Reuters for "inaccurate" reporting and suspended the agency's licence in the country for three months. 

However, a Reuters spokesperson said on Friday that the news agency had "not received notification" from Iraqi authorities regarding its licence and was "seeking clarification on the matter".

"We stand by our story of April 2, which was based on multiple, well-placed medical and political sources, and also fully represented the position of the Iraqi health ministry. Reuters will continue to report on Iraq in a fair, independent and impartial way, as we do all around the world".

Rasho said that there had been a number of suspected cases in Sinjar, which had come from soldiers who were sent from the south.

'The Kurds from Turkey and Syria are joining the others in Sinjar, so it will be the source of infection because they are crossing the border, they have their own rules and their own routes and even before then no one could stop them'

- Hussein Rasho, doctor

Since then, the Iraqi government had begun extending the length of shift deployments, so as to limit the risk of contagion.

Rasho said his main concern came from the porous border with Syria, and Kurdish groups travelling among Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

"The YPG (People's Protection Units) and PKK are still moving from Iraq to Syria, especially through the Rabia and Sinjar [border crossings], so I think if something happens it will be very bad," he said.

"The Kurds from Turkey and Syria are joining the others in Sinjar, so it will be a source of infection because they are crossing the border, they have their own rules and their own routes and even before then no one could stop them."

The PKK has maintained a foothold in Sinjar through the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a Yazidi-majority organisation that has clashed with other Kurdish groups, including those supported by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Turkey also intermittently carries out air strikes in Sinjar against the YBS and other targets it alleges are linked to the PKK, which has fought a guerilla war with Turkey since 1984.

'Genocide' in the camps

More than 500,000 Yazidi residents of Sinjar had fled the district by March 2015 in the wake of the IS massacres. The majority have yet to return to the district and are scattered across internally displaced people's camps in northern Iraq.

In mid-March, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Iraqi Red Crescent Society said they had delivered food and hygiene kits to more than 2,300 families on Mount Sinjar.

They warned that they would be "particularly vulnerable" to the impact of an infectious disease like coronavirus.

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Rasho, who was working in a refugee camp near Zakho in northern Iraq on Friday, said that conditions in the camps were ripe for spreading the coronavirus infection.

He pointed out that in some cases 10 families were using the same bathroom.

The social distancing called for by the WHO - as well as total isolation for those actually suffering from Covid-19 - would be virtually impossible.

"I think it will be a genocide in the camps," he said.

"They need home isolation and self-isolation - and this is very hard to do in the camps and in Sinjar."