BAQUBA - A nurse at Baquba General Hospital asked Ahmed Ali, who co-authored
this report, for a bribe to look after his sick baby. It was hardly an exceptional
demand. Patients around Iraq have begun commonly to speak of the need to bribe
medical staff to get some form of care.
"Nurses in Iraqi hospitals are no angels of mercy," Falah Najim,
who was a patient at the main hospital in Baquba, told IPS. "They look
after their pockets, not the patient."
The practice of bribing medical staff has been around since at least the 1990s,
during the difficult days of the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first
Gulf War. After the U.S. invasion of 2003, this seems to have become worse,
like so much else in Iraq.
"The profession of medicine has changed from a profession of mercy to
just money-making," Abdullah Najeeb, a trader in Baquba city, about 25
mi. northeast of Baghdad, told IPS.
Staff shortage has clearly made the problem worse. More than half of about
36,000 medical workers who were in the country at the time the U.S. invasion,
including doctors, nurses and other staff, have fled the country. "It
is very hard to see a doctor in a hospital or in a clinic," hospital employee
Sabay Ismail told IPS.
Stories of suffering in hospitals have become commonplace.
"I spent a night in the public hospital without air-conditioning,"
the mother of a baby, who did not wish to give her name, told IPS. "My
baby kept sweating all night in the heat. The resident doctor came to see the
child only once. I took my baby away; we did not complete the treatment. Then
I could not find good medical treatment even in the private hospitals. The
baby died because of their negligence."
"There are two public hospitals in Baquba; one for children and the other
is general," an official in the Diyala directorate-general of health told
IPS, requesting anonymity. In both, he said, "we continue to suffer from
a shortage of doctors."
"Twenty pregnant women might have only one doctor to help them deliver
the child within a space of one or two hours," the husband of a pregnant
woman due to deliver told IPS. "Hundreds of people who go to hospital
may find an employee or nurse, but no doctor."
The few doctors who remain are mostly resident doctors or young graduates.
Most specialists and senior doctors have long since fled.
The ones who remain make do with ill-equipped hospitals. "The government
specifies big funds and projects for renovation and equipment for the hospitals,"
an official in the provincial health office told IPS. "But deals are made
between the contractors and the politicians."
Former deputy minister for health Dr. Amer al-Khuzaie had told IPS in 2005
that his ministry was allocated a billion dollars of the $18.6 billion set
aside by the U.S. government for rebuilding Iraq.
But the Ministry of Health does not have control over the funds, Khuzaie said.
Instead USAID, the U.S. government body responsible for allocating reconstruction
funds, handed out contracts to foreign corporations. The corporations spent
the funds as they saw fit.
Now, the problem is more of corruption. In late 2007, the Ministry of Health
was taken over by Shia politicians aligned with cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. There
is almost nothing of the budget to show in Iraq's hospitals. "They only
paint the walls," says Baquba resident Bahira Aboud.
Private hospitals have their own handicaps. "Two months ago my 6-year-old
daughter went for tonsil surgery," said resident Abul-Amir Mahood. "After
they gave her anesthetic, the electricity shut down. They had no generator.
I waited for my daughter to regain consciousness, then just took her back home."
The Health Ministry has reported a recent outbreak of cholera. This has scared
residents in Baquba because the local hospitals are not equipped to deal with
In Baquba, as in many other cities, most of the established clinics are closed.
Some doctors see patients in their houses, which have been turned into impromptu,
A large number of such "clinics" have come up, where doctors charge
patients $10 to $20 for a consultation. When the average monthly salary
for those lucky enough to have a job is around $180, this is a heavy
And not for the best treatment. "There are doctors who see more than
100 patients a day," said resident Fatima Edan. "Their diagnosis
is badly affected by the speed with which they go through patients. The quicker
the better; they are greedy for more money."