At least 82 people died after a fire broke out in the coronavirus intensive care unit of the Ibn Khatib hospital in Baghdad, as Iraq faces a growing wave of COVID-19 cases.
The fire on Sunday was sparked by an accident that caused an oxygen tank to explode, according to media reports.
The health ministry announced on Sunday that 82 people were killed and 110 were injured in the blaze, while the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said 28 of the victims were patients who had to be taken off ventilators to escape the flames.
The flames spread quickly, according to civil defence officials, as “the hospital had no fire protection system and false ceilings allowed the flames to spread to highly flammable products”.
In response to the fire, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi suspended Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi amid angry calls on social media for him to be sacked.
The prime minister also declared three days of national mourning, while parliament said it would devote its Monday session to the tragedy.
Iraq’s healthcare system, already ruined by decades of sanctions, war and neglect, has been stretched even further as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
Iraqi hospitals do not usually have a central supply of oxygen and patients who need it are usually given a cylinder that is placed by their bed. Given staff shortages, relatives are sometimes required to change the cylinders.
Earlier in a statement, the government’s human rights commission said the incident was “a crime against patients exhausted by COVID-19 who put their lives in the hands of the health ministry and its institutions and instead of being treated, perished in flames”.
UN envoy to Iraq Jeannine Hennis-Plasschaert expressed “shock and pain” over the incident in a statement and called for stronger protection measures in hospitals.
The total number of people who have been infected with COVID-19 in Iraq is 102,528 including 15,217 deaths, the health ministry said on Saturday.