BAGHDAD—A fire caused by an exploding oxygen canister killed at least 58 people in a hospital treating Covid-19 patients in southern Iraq late Monday in the second lethal blaze in a coronavirus facility in the country in less than three months, according to Iraqi officials.
Videos of the incident reviewed by The Wall Street Journal showed flames and plumes of black smoke along with the sound of sirens at the Al-Hussein hospital in the city of Nasiriyah.
The fire began in a quarantine facility for Covid-19 patients attached to the main hospital, according to local health officials. The Iraqi government has ordered an investigation into the cause of the fire, which continued after midnight local time.
Following an emergency meeting with ministers and top security officials, Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi suspended the hospital director, the head of the regional health department and the province’s head of civil defense. He also ordered that all three be detained during the investigation.
The fire amplifies the public pressure on Iraq’s government as it deals with crumbling infrastructure, an continuing economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic and an array of security problems.
The fire is the second of its kind in Iraq in recent months after a blaze in the coronavirus ward of a hospital in Baghdad killed at least 82 people in April, sparking outrage among Iraqis who accused the authorities of negligence. Following that incident, Mr. Kadhimi also ordered an investigation and called for other hospitals to be checked for fire risks.
After the fire in Nasiriyah on Monday night, crowds of angry demonstrators appeared at the hospital chanting “revolution!” according to witnesses and videos. The protesters could be seen setting a police car on fire.
“The political parties burned us!” The protesters chanted.
Most of the people killed in the fire were patients in the quarantine facility, according to local health officials. Rows of bodies draped with brown blankets could be seen outside the facility.
The speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, said the fire demonstrated a failure to protect Iraqis’ lives. “It is time to put an end to this catastrophic failure,” he said in a tweet.
A separate fire broke out earlier on Monday at the headquarters of Iraq’s Health Ministry in Baghdad. No one was hurt in the fire on the fourth and fifth floors of the building, according to a statement from the ministry.
Iraq is currently battling a resurgence of the coronavirus, registering record numbers of new infections in recent days. The country reported 9,141 new cases and 44 deaths on Monday.
In addition to the fires, Iraq is also dealing with long power outages at a time when the country is subject to some of the hottest temperatures on Earth, fueling protests. The country’s electricity minister resigned in June over the power cuts, which the ministry blamed on attacks on electricity lines, a lack of fuel for power stations and a recent cutoff of energy supplies from Iran.
Fires in Covid-19 hospitals have added to the catastrophic human toll of the pandemic, as health facilities have been pushed to place growing numbers of patients on ventilators requiring bottled oxygen. Deadly hospital fires have also taken place in India and Romania.
The pandemic has also strained global supplies of bottled oxygen, forcing authorities to ration supplies in various countries.
Write to Jared Malsin at [email protected]
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