BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi health officials reported Tuesday that the death toll from a devastating fire that erupted at a coronavirus hospital unit in southern Iraq the day before had risen to 58.
On Tuesday morning, bereaved families combed through the rubble of burned blankets and possessions inside the burnt remnants of the unit, hoping for evidence of their loved ones. A charred skull of a deceased female ward patient was discovered.
Many people sobbed openly, their cries laced with rage, blaming years of mismanagement and neglect on both the province administration of Dhi Qar, where Nasiriyah is situated and the federal government in Baghdad.
Overnight, firemen and rescuers hurriedly searched the ward in the dark, often with just torches and blankets to put out minor flames that were still burning in some spots. Outside the hospital, bodies were wrapped with blankets and put on the ground as daylight dawned.
Officials had previously stated that the incident was caused by an electric short circuit, but had given no further details. According to another source, the fire started when an oxygen cylinder exploded. Because they were not allowed to speak to journalists, the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The new ward, which only opened three months ago, has 70 beds.
In the aftermath of the fire, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi convened an emergency conference and ordered the suspension and imprisonment of Dhi Qar’s health director, as well as the director of the hospital and the city’s head of civil defense. An inquiry by the government has also been initiated.
Mourners prepared to bury some of the deceased in the adjacent Shiite holy city of Najaf.
It was the second time this year that a major fire in an Iraqi hospital killed coronavirus patients. In April, an oxygen tank exploded, causing a fire at Baghdad’s Ibn al-Khateeb hospital, killing at least 82 people.
That event exposed widespread carelessness and chronic mismanagement in Iraq’s healthcare facilities. Doctors have criticized the lack of safety regulations, particularly in the area of oxygen cylinders.
According to Ammar al-Zamili, a spokeswoman for the Dhi Qar health department, there were at least 63 patients within the unit when the fire broke out on Monday. The structure was made of combustible materials and was prone to fire, according to Maj. Gen. Khalid Bohan, the commander of Iraq’s civil defense.
Iraq is undergoing yet another COVID-19 surge. The number of new coronavirus cases each day peaked at 9,000 last week. Iraq’s health service has failed to contain the virus after decades of conflict and sanctions. Since the beginning of the epidemic, over 17,000 individuals have died from the virus, with 1.4 million confirmed cases.