North Africa, West Asia

COVID-19 in Iraq: the virus of social inequality

The coronavirus is above all a fight against the corrupt state and the social inequalities produced by it.

Maurizio Coppola
1 April 2020
Empty street in Baghdad, Iraq
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Picture by Zhang Miao/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved

While the Iraqi government imposes a curfew and some cities close schools, universities and malls to limit the spread of the coronavirus, living conditions are getting more and more precarious due to lack of social and health protection. Social protests are shrinking due to risk and fear of contagion, but tens of thousands of people continue to build popular solidarity.

The coronavirus has now reached the Middle East and North Africa and is having a serious impact on people's daily lives. Today, the virus is also producing important changes with regard to the social protests that had begun to rock a number of states in the region in the past year.

In Algeria the students who have been taking to the streets every Tuesday for more than a year decided to suspend their demonstrations; the president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who demonstrators claim is illegitimately occupying office, has also imposed a ban on Friday protests and the indecision within the hirak produced important discussions and finally to cancel the weekly Friday demonstrations. In Lebanon too, the increase in the spread of the virus is holding back protests.

However, the events of the last few days have revealed that the spread of the coronavirus is creating a new crisis within the economic and political crisis that the countries of the Middle East and North Africa have been experiencing for decades. The structural problems of these economies, and the lack of social services guarantees – in this case health services - to the overwhelming majority of the populations are accentuated by the blockade imposed on daily life. Iraq is a paradigmatic example of this.

The Iraqi government has decided on a one-week curfew and the closure of schools, universities and malls. Cinemas, restaurants and bars will also remain closed. Religious institutions have suspended their activities and gatherings. On March 31, there were 630 cases in Iraq with 46 deaths. Given the scarcity of tests carried out, the number is likely to be much higher.

Informality hits hard

A first general lesson we can learn from these last few weeks is that the impact of the virus is not the same for everyone. On the one hand, the government’s measures of stay at home are restricting freedom of movement to contain the spread of the virus and blocked social life, but on the other hand the production of goods and services has not been stopped though health and social security measures for workers have remained insufficient.

Two thirds of workers in Iraq work in the informal sector, which accounts for 99% of the private economy

But the social and economic structures of Middle Eastern and North African countries are very different from that of western countries. As a UNESCO study on the Iraqi labour market reveals, two thirds of workers in Iraq work in the informal sector, which accounts for 99% of the private economy. Informality does not provide secure wages and social safety nets in the event of wage losses.

"The workers are experiencing a tragedy, because the vast majority live from day to day. Unemployed and informal workers have no regular income and therefore no savings and no social security buffer in case of loss of wages. In the absence of all this, today they find themselves in great vital difficulties: they simply lack money to buy food", said Sami Adnan, a 28-year-old unemployed man from Baghdad and activist of a political group called Workers Against Sectarianism, formed at the beginning of the social protests that began last year.

Public welfare – but until when?

The most stable work, according to the UNESCO study, is public sector work which accounts for 40% of all jobs in Iraq. The first economic source is the oil sector which corresponds to 99.6% of export revenues, 92% of the state budget and 61% of the national GDP, though only one in every hundred Iraqi workers is employed in the sector. Public expenditure on direct wages (salary and pensions) and indirect wages (goods and social services) amounts to about 60%.

“Those who were forced to live from hand to mouth and couldn't save up, are now starving"

This inequality between the public sector, which still enjoys (for the moment at least) wages and social guarantees and a private sector dominated almost exclusively by informality and precarity translates into daily private consumption. Adnan explains: "Public employees with regular wages are emptying supermarkets and accumulating stocks at home. Those who were forced to live from hand to mouth and couldn't save up, are now starving."

With the current oil crisis – the price of the Brent barrel has fallen below 25 dollars – the state's revenues are shrinking significantly. In the short-term, the state will therefore have difficulty guaranteeing the standard of living of its employees.

The situation is aggravated by the scarcity of food and increasing prices. Adnan continues: "In this context of scarcity, traders are raising the prices of basic necessities to get rich. For example, a kilo of tomatoes normally cost USD 0,50, today they are no less than USD 1,50. The state is not able and does not want to intervene to regulate this vital problem for the majority of the population."

For the few people who have found regular jobs in the private sector, however, he lack of workers' rights makes them equally vulnerable to the current crisis: "A friend of mine worked for Caterpillar in a Baghdad shopping mall at USD 700 a month. Because of the virus, the shopping malls have been closed, so workers have to stay at home. But the company refuses to pay salaries during this time of non-work."

A dismantled health system

If on the labour front informality, precarity and lack of rights are accentuating social inequalities, the health system is failing to balance them. Until the 1970s, Iraq had one of the most developed health systems in the Middle East. It was a public system, universal and free for all. Both hospital facilities and the purchase of medicines were in the hands of the Ministry of Health. With the regime of Saddam Hussein before and the wars and embargoes of the 1990s and early 2000s, the health care system deteriorated substantially. "In every major city in the country there is a hospital. But they are small, old, dirty, with poor infrastructure”, Adnan explains.

The public system has undergone the classic neo-liberal restructuring, producing clientelism and corruption: "The sanctions imposed during the 1990s and after 2003 still weigh on our health care system. The privatisation of public health care has accelerated dramatically over the last 15 years. Today we have to pay for every single visit and often, in order to get treatment, we are obliged to give a bribe to the few remaining doctors in the country.”

Before this process of dismantling public health, the Iraqi government through the state company Kimadia had managed and controlled the import of medicines. Today this public company controls only 25% of imports. According to statements from the Ministry of Health, 40% of medicines pass through the black markets of neighbouring countries and many medicines do not even arrive. Adnan says: "The medicine market and pharmacies have also been privatised and the costs have exploded. Often, doctors simply give us paracetamol even for more serious symptoms. In addition, the traders who control the distribution produce homemade and poor-quality medicines. We have many cases of people with liver and kidney problems related to taking self-produced drugs."

Since the announcement of the arrival of the disease in Iraq, the number of protestors has decreased, demonstrations have been postponed, events have been cancelled

These health deficiencies in Iraq today are also reflected in the approach of the government and the Ministry of Health to the coronavirus: "They are not concerned about the general situation or our health. There is a lack of information and prevention. This is compounded by the fact that religious leaders are spreading the news that as good believers and practitioners of Islam we are protected from contagion. This is foolish."

Solidarity at the time of the virus

The protests that broke out in October 2019 must therefore address these health and social difficulties. But the protests continue: "The reasons why we took to the streets in recent months were precisely these: the social and health system is totally insufficient to meet people's needs", says Adnan, who writes about about the protests on social media.

Since the announcement of the arrival of the disease in Iraq, the number of protestors has decreased, demonstrations have been postponed, events have been cancelled. But some people continue to occupy Tahrir Square. And the virus has itself become a vehicle of protest. "Inside our tent village in Tahrir Square we are disinfecting everything: clothes, tents, mattresses, blankets, tools and utensils. We are distributing personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves."

The organisational structures that grew up in the wake of the protests are therefore replacing the tasks that the state should assume. Adnan explains: "We have launched an awareness campaign not only in the square. We are wandering the streets and the working people's neighborhoods explaining how to protect ourselves from the contagion: stay at home, avoid religious gatherings and so on, following the directions of the WHO."

Beyond the prevention campaign, activists are also developing mutual aid practices: "To address the problem of food shortages and rising prices, we are organizing in working-class neighborhoods to share food: rice, vegetables, sugar and other basic necessities."

And solidarity does not stop at borders. Given the violence with which the virus has struck neighbouring Iran, the collection of medicines and basic necessities is not limited to Iraq: "We are collecting masks, disinfectants and medicines to send them to our Iranian comrades."

The coronavirus is above all a fight against the corrupt state and the social inequalities produced by it. Adnan concludes: "The demonstrators are constantly repeating: we did not retreat after they attacked us with tear gas, after they kidnapped our comrades, after they shot our sisters and brothers. We are staying here. Homeland or death is our watchword."

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