Voices From the Pandemic: Confronting COVID-19 in Kurdistan

Dr. Orahim Shamoon Oraha is a dentist from Dohuk, in Kurdistan.

For decades, Iraq has been ravaged by war and unprecedented levels of destruction that decimated its infrastructure, governance, and, most importantly, its people. Unlike many developed countries around the world, the Iraqi health service, once the envy of Middle Eastern nations, cannot adequately test its citizens for the coronavirus nor does it have the capacity to treat large numbers of infected people.

COVID-19 has been recently a global and serious pandemic, and because it is an ill-defined disease, it has spread very rapidly in countries around the world, including my country, Iraq. It has affected the deteriorating economic situation and the living situation of individuals due to the interruption of daily life and work. As I write, Iraq has confirmed 134 deaths from the coronavirus and 3,724 cases. The lack of awareness about how to deal with the cases, even among medical staff, made the infected feel ostracized, linking being infected with the virus with a stigma that has made everyone around them avoid them.

I worked in the Directorate of Prevention and Health Affairs from 2013 till August 2014, when ISIS entered the cities of Nineveh Plain. With the arrival of millions of displaced people from those provinces to the Kurdistan region of Christians, Yazidis and Muslims, I was assigned at Mar Narsai dispensary; the dispensary was opened in Dohuk governorate. The center gradually developed with the main help of CNEWA and several other welfare organizations and became an integrated health center with doctors from almost all specialties (more than 20 staff of dentists, a pharmacist and medical assistants). Mar Narsai dispensary has helped take care of all internally displaced people with medical and financial aid for those who needed surgeries in private hospitals.

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 and the emergence of the situation in many countries, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) took all necessary measures to prevent the spread of the virus, especially in Dohuk. At the beginning of March, all schools, universities and places of worship were closed. On 10 March, all state institutions except hospitals and emergency facilities were closed. A few days later, the province was closed and entry and exit were prevented; after the first case of the virus was declared on 19 March, a curfew was imposed in all the region, preventing all gatherings in public places. In addition, only bakeries, pharmacies and food shops were allowed to open for few hours during the day, taking into consideration all preventive measures, such as wearing masks, avoiding kissing and shaking hands, washing hands and using disinfectants and antiseptics.

All these measures have stopped social life, affected the mindset of individuals and harmed the economy. The hardest hit were the daily workers who depended on their earnings to live, and employees who did not receive their late salaries due to political problems. The curfew — with the citizens remaining in their homes — has led owners of grocery stores to double their prices on some items; this prompted the Iraqi National Security Agency to publish a hotline number for any Iraqi citizen who is exposed to this kind of exploitation from grocery stores owners or even pharmacists who inflated the prices of masks, gloves and disinfectants. Unfortunately, with the loss of their livelihoods, people are unable to pay for basic necessities including rent, utilities, and food. Schools, often providers of meals for children, are now closed, and children are at risk  of hunger.

“My faith has never been shaken with the help of the Lord, because he is the only one who will save us from this dangerous pandemic.”

Dr. Orahim Shamoon Oraha

Despite preventive measures, 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in the city from people coming from Europe. These cases were treated very carefully, as they were confined to a private hospital, treated and followed up until they were fully recovered. During the pandemic, as the dispensary was closed by the Ministry of Health — reallocating the doctors to different hospitals and quarantine centers — I have been conducting daily visits to the quarantine center for which I was responsible, following up on the infected health conditions and monitoring their psychological condition during quarantine. People in quarantine are being monitored and treated with great care and caution, and tests are conducted one day before they leave to make sure they are not infected anymore.

Although the virus did not affect anyone from my family or friends, being on the frontline, I was very worried that I could possibly catch the virus and transmit it to my family, especially my paralyzed father whom I visit several times per week.

My faith has never been shaken with the help of the Lord, because he is the only one who will save us from this dangerous pandemic. With God’s mercy, we have passed through this experience safely; so far, the city has not recorded any new case for days now, and the city is still closed except for health emergencies. Although people were not able to attend Masses because of preventive measures, the church continued to conduct liturgies without the presence of people, broadcasting services through social media platforms.  The church played a major role in strengthening the faith with the power of God to protect us from this virus, where nothing is difficult and impossible in the hands of the Almighty.

Alone we can do so little; together, we can do so much. This too shall pass, and in the end, there’s a bright light waiting for all of us at the end of this dark tunnel. Individually, we are just one drop; together, we are an ocean.

“He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.” (Psalm 91:15)

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