Baghdad, Iraq – Nursing Activity Manager Maxime Pirard is visibly tired. The young healthcare provider has been working tirelessly in one of Baghdad’s COVID-19 intensive care units, as the country sinks further under the weight of a second wave of the coronavirus.
The clinic, run by the medical organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of Health, expanded its capacity from 36 to 51 beds at the beginning of last month, as reported daily cases soared across the country from about 800 in February to more than 5,000 in March. On March 25, the country recorded 6,513 infections.
“The biggest challenge is that the flow of patients is really high and the staff is really tired,” Nurse Pirard told Al Jazeera. “We have a lot of staff also getting sick, so a lot of colleagues are doing extra duties.”
Pirard is part of a team of 102 local and international nurses and doctors working in the MSF clinic, a brand-new structure inside al Kindi public hospital, a quiet compound near Baghdad’s frenzied Palestine street.
Fatigued and overloaded, the calm murmur of the healthcare workers going about their daily rounds inside the clinic belied the gravity of the situation. Not one room down the long corridor was empty in late March, as patients connected to breathing machines lay silently under blankets.
In early February, the bed occupancy was below 50 percent, Pirard said, but now there’s only space for a “one in, one out” policy.
“The centre is full, we have three patients waiting in the emergency room and we know as soon as we discharge someone the bed will be filled by a new critical patient,” said Pirard.
Unlike during the country’s first wave last year, most people seeking medical help at the MSF clinic are in need of critical care. “In the past, it was more severe to moderate patients coming in with mild symptoms. Now, it’s more patients coming in in respiratory distress and needing a lot of oxygen,” said Pirard.
According to the Ministry of Health, since the beginning of the pandemic, Iraq has increased the number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds equipped with ventilators from 700 to 10,000. On Wednesday, 468 of them were being used, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Health Dr Sayf al-Badr told Al Jazeera.
But some medical workers remain unconvinced by these figures. “The number of true ICU beds in the country is nowhere near that figure,” said a medical source who asked to remain anonymous. “All the hospitals I’m talking to in Baghdad to are reporting a bed occupancy rate of 95 percent or more.”
On Tuesday, British charity Save the Children warned that a rising number of infections were being reported among infants and children. Health ministry figures show that the number of children under 10 diagnosed with COVID-19 jumped from 11,699 to 13,546 in just two weeks in March.