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'They're the virus': Iraq outbreak refuels anti-govt protests

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Baghdad (AFP)

Iraqi protesters had been rallying against government incompetence, poor public services and foreign meddling for months before a novel coronavirus outbreak. Then the epidemic arrived and breathed new life to their grievances.

"The real virus is Iraqi politicians," said Fatima, an 18-year-old protester and medical student from Baghdad.

"We are immune to almost everything else."

Across protest squares in the capital and southern hotspots, the anti-government demonstrators mobilised since October have started to take public health into their own hands.

They have distributed leaflets and delivered lectures on coronavirus prevention, while volunteers have handed out free medical masks, which have more than doubled in price in local markets.

Makeshift clinics erected months ago to treat demonstrators hit by live fire and tear gas cannisters are now dispensing gloves and sanitisers.

Volunteers in biohazard suits take the temperature of protesters lined up in organised queues.

"Even in normal times our health care system is totally run down," said Fatima, a volunteer in central Baghdad's Tahrir Square, epicentre of the protests.

"Now on top of everything, we have a coronavirus outbreak, and we are supposed to rely on these facilities?"

Inside medical centres, blood-stained sinks in washrooms and ill-equipped amenities have become a common sight.

Hasan Khallati, a member of parliament's health committee, told AFP that "hospitals and healthcare facilities are fully-equipped to deal with the outbreak" of COVID-19.

But available data tells a different story.

According to the World Health Organization, Iraq has less than 10 doctors for every 10,000 residents.

- Outbreak next-door -

Iraq reported its first coronavirus case last week in an Iranian national studying at a religious seminary in the southern shrine city of Najaf.

The total number of diagnosed infections has since jumped to 19 -- all traced to the Islamic republic, just across the border.

Iran has recorded 54 deaths among 978 cases, the largest death toll outside China, the epidemic’s epicentre.

This has sparked public panic in Iraq, one of Iran's largest export markets and a popular destination for Iranian pilgrims visiting Najaf and Karbala, another holy city.

Many Iraqis also flow across the frontier for business, tourism, medical treatment and religious studies.

Responding to the outbreak, Iraqi authorities closed land borders with Iran and banned the entry of foreign nationals travelling from the Islamic republic and other badly affected countries.

In the protest camps, anti-Iranian sentiment is on the rise, having surged in recent months among demonstrators who accuse Iran of meddling in Iraq's internal affairs.

This has been compounded by accusations that Iranian officials are covering up the severity of the outbreak within their borders.

Iraqi officials, protesters say, are doing the same.

"We think there are cases the government has not yet declared," medical student Russol said at a protest camp in the southern city of Diwaniya.

"They need to be transparent with the people," she said.

- 'Snipers didn't deter us' -

With schools, universities, cinemas, cafes and other public places ordered shut until March 7, turnout at protests had been expected to fall, especially after the government said it would restrict large gatherings over virus fears.

Populist cleric Moqtada Sadr, regarded as an engine of the protest movement before he withdrew his support in late January, told his loyalists they were prohibited from demonstrating because of the epidemic.

But students who make up the bulk of the anti-government movement have taken advantage of suspended classes to trickle back onto the streets.

On Sunday, they flowed into protest camps in Baghdad and Diwaniya to press for a government overhaul two months after outgoing premier Adel Abdel Mahdi resigned under popular pressure.

Undeterred, they said they have faced much deadlier threats than the novel coronavirus which has yet to lead to fatalities in Iraq.

"Your snipers didn't deter us, what can coronavirus do?" protesters chanted.

Security forces have used tear gas, rubber bullets, flashbangs, live rounds and even machine-gun fire to disperse protests.

Since October 1, around 550 people have been killed and 30,000 others injured, mostly protesters.

Last week alone, four protesters were shot dead in protest camps and one activist was assassinated in his home.

"Political parties and corruption are an epidemic that is much more dangerous than the coronavirus," said Mohammad, a university student in Diwaniya.

"This is the outbreak we want to get rid of because it has destroyed Iraq."

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