Broken system: Inside Iraq’s healthcare crisis

This is 14-year-old Mostafa in September 2019 in Basra, southern Iraq. He was initially misdiagnosed with joint inflammation, but then doctors confirmed he was suffering from cancer. Devastating news for his father Hesham Abdullah.

(SOUNDBITE) (Arabic) FATHER OF MUSTAFA WHO DIED FROM CANCER, HESHAM ABDULLAH, SAYING:

'I just want treatment for Mostafa, that is all I want. I have tried everything I could, but it was all in vain. We can only do very little for him at the moment. We have reached rock bottom, and our morale is down. We are beyond tired. When you watch your son in such a state, groaning in pain, day and night, and he cannot sleep. What should I do? There is nothing I can do."


It's a frustration shared by so many across Iraq - ravaged for the past three decades by war, sanctions, sectarian conflict and the rise of Islamic State.

Patients, families, and politicians paint a picture of a healthcare system in collapse -- one that may struggle to contain the new threat of the novel coronavirus.

Former health minister Alaa Alwan points to decades of missed opportunities to maintain and rebuild the system.


(SOUNDBITE) (Arabic) FORMER IRAQI HEALTH MINISTER, ALAA ALWAN, SAYING:

''Successive Iraqi governments over the past decades have not given the right priority to the healthcare sector, especially when it comes to funding. Funding allocated to the health sector from the state budget has been very low. That's one of the reasons why we've seen a deterioration and one of the problems we're suffering from today in reforming the healthcare sector."


In 2019 Iraq allocated just 2.5% of the state's $106.5 billion budget to its health ministry, a fraction of spending elsewhere in the Middle East.

By comparison security forces received 18% and the oil ministry 13.5%.


Basra Children's Cancer Hospital is where Mostafa received some of his treatment.

But faced with ill-equipped facilities and medicine shortages, his family like many other Iraqi families, spent thousands flying him to hospitals in India and then Lebanon.


It was all in vain. He died in pain in February 2020.


(SOUNDBITE) (Arabic) FATHER OF MUSTAFA WHO DIED FROM CANCER, HESHAM ABDULLAH, SAYING:

''Despite everything, Mostafa never gave up. Whenever we asked him how he was, he responded 'Thank God.' He had strong faith and he was brave, but the disease took over him. He couldn't beat it. He died in mine and his mother's hands. His soul left his body."