Dr. Abbas finds physical distancing a real challenge in Iraq to fight COVID-19

Randa El Ozeir: The Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS) has gathered its efforts to fight COVID-19, and launched “Your Doctor” program to guide, sensitize, and refer people to the relevant health services depending on their situation. In our conversation with the President of the IRCS, Dr. Yaseen Abbas, we talked about how Iraqis are dealing with the pandemic, which hasn’t changed much of their behavior and social culture although it caused them to lose their livelihood and revealed the depth of the economic and social crisis inflicting on the country. Dr. Abbas stressed the need to strengthen Disaster Risk Reduction and Management to protect the population and keep and attract the local and foreign investments.

Why the situation in Iraq regarding COVID-19 hasn’t improved despite all the adopted measures?

Any measure taken during a pandemic wouldn’t succeed if citizens do not cooperate or understand its importance. Since the beginning, it was obvious that the adopted measures focused on the health side without looking into the reality of livelihood. In the first phase, a curfew has been imposed in Iraq. And this simply meant livelihood interruption for citizens who earn their living from daily jobs. I don’t think citizens would respect such a curfew as it affects their livelihood and their families’ and would find breaking this ban as their only option.

The second and more important point in my opinion is the physical distancing during social event. The social celebrations didn’t stop at all, namely “Majalid Al-Aza’a” (Mourning Gatherings). It is an occasion where come together the parents, relatives, friends, locals, and everyone who had known the deceased. They crowd in pavilions, mosques, and halls for three days as per the customs in Iraq. Social distancing was not practiced as well as the physical distancing in such occasions. Shaking hands, and even hugging, continued. Besides, visits during the curfew did not ease if not increased due to work suspension, and the chances upped for everyone to stay late and meet in the morning, at noon, and at night.

Do you find that learning and education factor in helping with the awareness about the seriousness of COVID-19? And how do you deal with people who believe only in our written fate? 

Learning plays a crucial and direct role in the process of accepting and perceiving information. But nowadays, we notice a lot of confusion circulating through the social media. Unfortunately, part of the confusion is coming from highly educated people. 

There is been a talk lately, about the concept of “COVID-19 fatigue” as a widespread phenomenon among people, the youth in particular. Does this apply to Iraq or specific parts of it?

Yes, it does apply to Iraq, and I suspect it to be a human nature regardless of the country. The latest measures in Iraq reflect this fatigue, which is noticed through the complete opening of institutions. All restaurants, coffee shops, and public shops are open in a manifestation of COVID-19 fatigue.

Prior to COVID-19, Iraq was still struggling with social, economic, and political crisis. How the unfavourable impact of the virus reflected in the whole situation of the country?

As a result of COVID-19, many jobs discontinued in Iraq. For instance, the hospitality and restaurant sector almost stopped altogether. It employed huge numbers of citizens and affected other related sectors, which was a direct reason for too many to lose their livings, especially those who bank on daily jobs with no protection or insurance.

The other factor is the falling of oil prices, which directly affected many businesses linked to official spending, such as construction, business related to public firms, buying from the markets, and the salary of some public employees or the people who do daily work with the government. The government was in a tight spot to secure the permanent employees’ salaries, which led to harming some of those who earn a daily living.

“Your Doctor” for Help and Guidance

Are there any particular initiatives you like to highlight or believe they played, or could play, a positive role in protecting the population?

In the extensive awareness program the IRCS adopted since the end of last January, the Society launched “Your Doctor” project due to the many confusing opinions circulating about COVID-19. We gave the phone numbers of numerous doctors to guide, at certain hours, those who are suspected of being infected or who are actually infected. Our doctors receive a high volume of calls and refer the caller to the best way of consulting health institutions when his situation worsens and encourage him not to ignore the approved health guidelines in Iraq, as well as these of World Health Organization.

We asked the government to adopt the concept of “Disaster Risk Reduction.” The world and the investors evaluate the countries’ situation by their capacity and resilience at times of disasters whether it be natural or man-made. The risks of investment and building projects in a country are assessed by its capacity to deal with all kinds of disasters. A lack of such plans raises the risk level in investment for both local and foreign investors.

Iraq suffered an unrest due to the living conditions that affected the stability of political situation. There were demonstrations and strikes that might have coincided with what happened in Lebanon. Then later came the COVID-19 pandemic. We all need to understand that “Disaster Risk Reduction” is not a luxury, but a necessity and foundation for any development process to achieve progress and stability. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and notably the National Societies, and the IFRC are involved in directing the government’s focus to prepare emergency plans. To this date, many governments haven’t done that. This is a real problem, as we may find ourselves facing other disasters without any fending governmental plans, the way it happened with COVID-19. Thus, we see the amplified effect in our countries where the most vulnerable groups in society are to bear it.

There’s no doubt that the virus is present among the healthcare workers on the frontline, and the volunteers and staff of the IRCS are no exception. What measures are in place to curb the spread of cases, and how do you deal with the infection cases within the Society?

From the beginning, we realized that our affiliates should follow three simple steps: cleaning the hands, wearing a mask, and social distancing. So we have made clear decisions to reduce the number of people in the offices, limit the numbers within the field teams, and in a clear educational method, stress on the importance of taking the obligatory steps to keep the hands clean and put on the mask. We succeeded to a great extent in preventing the infections inside and through our activities and in our institutions. But this did not spare our staff and volunteers from getting infected by their social interactions, in one way or another, with their families and other members of society. There have been cases, but I believe that 99 percent, if not 100 percent, of them came from outside the Iraq Red Crescent National Society.

Are you still capable of providing the Society’s regular services on a daily basis (for instance, the ambulatory services, the psycho-social support, etc…) although COVID-19 has been on the top priority of the service list?

The psycho-social support is currently a continuing service, namely for the patients, their families, the medical and health cadres who have started to suffer from exhaustion and anxiety too. We offer the First Aid now through our ambulances, but with lower frequency compared to previous times. In fact, I think that as IRCS, we should do business as usual, but gradually and with safe coexistence with people.

What does it mean for you, personally, to be the IRCS president in the time of COVID-19? What are the most difficult challenges you have to face?

As a president of the IRCS in such circumstances and in a country where human suffering is diverse and abundant, it means one thing: keep trying to be innovative in all means. We shouldn’t follow the traditional ways, as we have to be creative in order to deliver our response to the amounting humanitarian needs deriving from COVID-19 and from other issues. And this is the primary challenge. Thank God we haven’t stopped providing our services to the community and were able, despite the regular life disruption for a period of time, to conduct our activities according to population’s needs emerging from the pandemic. As IRCS, I believe we navigated lots of phases in fulfilling our humanitarian goals, as well as answering people’s requirements.

Among other challenges is maintaining the National Society’s regular activities, effectiveness, and staff performance. I mean here particularly its the staff who have been working every day, day and night, without interruption in spite of the difficult circumstances that we went through.

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