Fieldset
COVID-19 in Baghdad: “Beauty and the beast“

Everything you think you know about Iraq is wrong. Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) doctor Ibie Mohammed looks back on six weeks in the COVID-struck country that’s full of surprises…

Thinking about soaring numbers of COVID-19 cases in Baghdad, I often had this image of a green-faced beast swinging around a wounded beautiful lady… she had no choice but to survive the cruel dance.

I’ve just finished my short assignment as the medical activities manager at a COVID-19 treatment centre in Baghdad, but that was never the plan. I wasn’t meant to come to Iraq!

The original plan

At first, I was almost assigned to Bangladesh, but the charter flight was cancelled. After I packed,  MSF then went above and beyond to help me reach north-east Syria. I flew to Baghdad just as a transit place.

Then due to a volatile situation and growing needs, the MSF team (who knew better!) decided that I would stay in Iraq.

I cried my eyes out that night. I was longing to help in Syria’s camps for displaced people, where the needs are vast and as paediatrician I had so much potential impact to make.

Little did I know that I would be in for a rich experience, staying in Baghdad instead.

Astonishing resilience

As well as being part of a team providing much-needed support in Iraq, I had an amazing experience and leave with fond memories about the difference we made.

I don't know what it is about Baghdad and Iraqi people. I found myself wondering if the war and long struggle the country has been through had activated in its citizens an astonishing resilience and refusal to give up, teaching them the ability to celebrate no matter what.

I was inspired many times by both the Ministry of Health team and our Iraqi medical staff

In my six weeks in the country, I was part of the MSF team working in Al-Kindy teaching hospital, one of the busiest COVID-19 centres in Baghdad, where the number of cases was putting the team under a lot of pressure.

To be honest, my assignment was far from a smooth ride and not without frustrations in terms of the limited resources we had, security restrictions, and the challenges of staff training and perceptions of COVID-19.

But, I was inspired many times by both the Ministry of Health team and our Iraqi medical staff. Particularly their attitudes toward the challenge of fighting COVID-19 against the backdrop of a fragile healthcare system, broken economy and volatile security situation.

Humbling

As in many parts of the world, there were shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), essential medications and our clinical work force. But, through these obstacles I saw much intellect, humanity and compassion in Iraq.

So, it was humbling to get cheerful smiles and prompt answers from the hospital management team, the head doctor, and individual medics whenever I had to show up in their offices to report or enquire about intensive care or infection prevention and control activities.

It was always a joy to greet MSF’s Iraqi staff and hear their insights on the issues we encountered in ICU and their stories about the struggling health system.

They worked hard, wanted to learn and took pride in sharing their knowledge with their Ministry of Health counterparts in the intensive care unit (ICU). I was always cheered by their warmth and their professional attitudes towards the situation.

Beautiful and fascinating

In Baghdad, kindness was contagious.

From medical staff, to patients’ families and shop keepers: whenever I interacted with people, their first response was almost always a smile, polite reply or assistance.

Such a consistent manner and qualities from the vulnerable, under-privileged and psychologically wounded was uplifting. I could never get used to the genuine smiles or nice words and acts.

Bridges connect more than the shores of the river. In Baghdad they connect beautiful minds, carry acts of humanities and get soulful pedestrian crossing to destinies.

Baghdad might be imagined as a city with a dry landscape, full of checkpoints and ruined buildings. Outside the city, people picture pockets of explosives, burned out buildings and possibly dead bodies on some streets.

Let me tell you that is not the current reality.

True, Iraq’s economy and politics are complex and the COVID-19 pandemic does not help, but the land and human factors are beautiful and fascinating.

There is a wealth of civilisation, cultures, religious diversities and unique attention to details reflected in everything from crafts, to food, music and attitudes.

The combination of security restrictions and COVID-19 measures meant I did not walk around Baghdad or visit places as a tourist, but, the views I saw from my windows left me nice visual memories.

The people; the streets, which were crowded and hot, but felt so lively and relatively clean.

The “wounded beauty”

The most cheerful part was crossing the bridge over the River Tigris towards the Rasafah side of the city where the hospital is, then the car passes near “Freedom Square”. The MSF driver always pointed the place out to me, and I would smile as I heard his proud voice.

I would think to myself, bridges connect more than the shores of the river. In Baghdad they connect beautiful minds, carry acts of humanities and get soulful pedestrian crossing to destinies.

My humbling experience in Iraq was short and sweet, with many challenges and a good team. It became a reminder of why I root for MSF.

I learnt how to better myself, to help others and to exercise self-care. Years ago, on my second posting with MSF, the country manager, told me ”You don’t have to suffer to help those who suffer”. I couldn't agree more.

In Iraq, I witnessed disheartening humanitarian needs and hard work, but I made some friends and I got to work hard to help citizens of Baghdad, the ”Wounded beauty”.

It was a joy and I would go back in a heartbeat.

--

Read more: Stories about COVID-19

Beating the snake: COVID-19 health promotion in Pakistan
COVID-19 in South Sudan: Waiting for the wave - Part 1