Coronavirus threatens Iraq with new humanitarian crisis

Supporting hospitals in Mosul, Iraq - Covid-19 response

With the generous support of Global Affairs Canada, Oxfam in Iraq has been able to support health facilities and vulnerable families in Mosul. We have provided protective equipments and hygiene kits to the Al-Salam and Al-Shifa hospitals - which include isolation and treatment centres - and we will rehabilitate the water and sanitation facilities. Photo: Oxfam

Iraq is a fragile state with 4.10 million people still in need of humanitarian assistance and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to exacerbate existing socio-economic vulnerabilities, in an already volatile and politically unstable context.

According to the UN, 1.7 million people were already in need of acute humanitarian assistance. With over 1.4 million internally displaced persons and around 300,000 residing in crowded camps - many without access to proper healthcare or income-generating activities - there is an immediate risk of a full-blown humanitarian emergency.

Abu Ahmad sits with his children in the rubble that used to be his home

Abu Ahmad sits with his children in the rubble that used to be his home. Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam

In addition to the impact on health, we are extremely concerned about the economic impact this will have on an already vulnerable population still recovering from ongoing cycles of conflict. The drastic fall in oil prices will have a severe and long-term impact on an economy that draws 90% of its budget from oil revenues. The potential fiscal deficit is estimated at between $40-80 billion. 

A precarious and high-risk environment

According to the latest data, 28% of families lack any access to income, 45% are dependent on casual labor and others rely on loans and cash assistance to meet their basic needs such as food, hygiene items or health care. The inability to meet these basic needs will put families at increased risk and amplify socio-economic fragility.

Oxfam Distributing Food basket to most vulnerable families in Ninewa. Mosul district.

Oxfam distributing food baskets to most vulnerable families in Ninewa, Mosul district. Each food basket contains lentil, rice, sugar, vegetable oil and flour. It also includes a flyer on Gender Based Violence helpline. Photo: Oxfam

The economic crisis must be understood within an already political instability and volatile security context, which could worsen if people’s livelihoods are threatened further and for a prolonged period. The appointment of a third Prime Minister designate in three months, as well as a recent surge in ISIS related incidents, especially in the east of the country, are indicative of this volatility.

Increasing poverty, an impending humanitarian crisis, an absence of political leadership and  a massively reduced international presence (ie coalition forces) present a precarious and high risk environment.

Small businesses forced to shut down

The most fragile populations are those working in small businesses and other informal jobs, they represent almost two thirds of the Iraqi workforce. Like many countries across the world, businesses were forced to shut down at short notice and in countries such as Iraq where the insurance sector or social safety nets are weak the impact of coronavirus could be catastrophic.

The owner of a restaurant in Mosul showed us all the basic goods that he couldn’t sell and  ended up distributing for free in his neighbourhood; he cannot pay the salaries of his dozen cooks and waiters nor the rent - even though the landlord graciously agreed to reduce the rent and delay payments. This has resulted in 15 households being affected.

Food distribution in Mosul

Oxfam's food distribution in Mosul. According to the latest data, many families rely on loans and cash assistance to meet their basic needs such as food, hygiene items or health care. Photo: Oxfam

In Erbil, many displaced persons had chosen to move to the town for better job opportunities; some young people work on day to day jobs or as employees in small businesses, cafés, restaurants, and support their family stuck in camps or precarious housing.

With the lockdown, practically all of them are left with no resources, trapped in shared living provided by their employers - if they’re lucky - or forced to leave town. These individuals and their families are now in imminent danger of starvation and directly depend on the state and NGOs for support. This is a situation that can be seen in many cities across Iraq.

Water, sanitation, cash assistance: Oxfam’s response

In light of this, Oxfam’s work in Iraq is more crucial than ever. We have seven offices across the country and our teams, along with our local partners, work closely with local authorities and communities, as well as supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Oxfam cash distribution for the most vulnerable families in Salahaddin.

Oxfam cash distribution for the most vulnerable families in Salahaddin. The lockdown suspended most of the distributions which led to delay of providing aid to families in need. Photo: Oxfam

The response plan we have implemented in the past month includes supporting hospitals and health centers with the repair and rehabilitation of water and sanitation infrastructure (which includes the construction of sanitation facilities and isolation rooms), providing hygiene and infection control materials as well as protective equipments, supporting public health awareness initiatives with local health authorities, training health workers and providing much needed cash assistance to vulnerable families.

The current coronavirus pandemic presents four crises in Iraq: health, economic, socio-political and security. Ensuring economic stability and livelihood opportunities will be a critical part in responding to all four challenges.

Andres Gonzalez, Country Director, Oxfam in Iraq

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