Three doctors “closely involved in the testing process” told Reuters on Thursday that Iraq has “thousands” of confirmed coronavirus cases, far more than the 772 infections reported by the government.
They also said the death toll from the pandemic was much higher than the 42 reported by the state.
Reuters said this estimate was confirmed by an official from the Iraqi Health Ministry and a “senior political official.” The Health Ministry itself, however, denied the allegations as “incorrect information” and said the source who spoke to Reuters was misreading the data.
The three doctors quoted in the piece said the true number of coronavirus cases in Iraq is between 3,000 and 9,000, while the anonymous Health Ministry source said the number was over 2,000. The senior political official also spoke of “thousands” of cases.
The doctors and the political official said Iraq’s national security establishment has decreed the real number of cases must be concealed to avoid panicking the public and prompting a rush on scarce medical supplies. Medical experts have said Iraq lacks the resources to conduct accurate coronavirus testing, so the number of reported cases can be expected to skyrocket if more rigorous testing is performed.
As Reuters pointed out, the low official count from Baghdad seems improbable because Iraq has a severely overstressed medical system, months of street protests against government corruption, a large number of Shiite Muslim pilgrims from other countries visiting holy sites in Iraq, a sizable number of citizens who refuse to practice social distancing techniques, and a large border with Iran, scene of the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.
Iraq is under a coronavirus curfew and state of emergency until at least April 11, but defiance of the curfew is widespread. Plummeting oil prices and political unrest had already devastated the Iraqi economy before the pandemic, and now there are fears of complete collapse and starvation as a result of coronavirus lockdowns.
“The current economic situation is worse than what we have seen before because all productive sectors have been suspended. There is no industry, no tourism, no transportation, and to some extent agriculture is affected as well. We are seeing a nearly complete paralysis of economic life and that comes on top of the ongoing protests. And also borders are blocked both within the country between provinces and on Iraq’s frontier with other countries,” a Baghdad economist told the New York Times last week.
The Iraqi government was so angered by Reuters’ report on unacknowledged coronavirus deaths that it suspended the news organization’s reporting license for three months on Friday, threatened fines of up to $21,000, and demanded a retraction and apology. The Iraqi Communications and Media Commission labeled the Reuters report “astonishing,” by which it meant outrageous.