April 4, 2020 / 12:38 AM
Medical workers warn of 'disaster' if coronavirus hits Shingal

The conflict-ravaged Shingal region in the north of Iraq could become a "disaster area" if the coronavirus pandemic were to spread there, health and aid workers have warned.

The Kurdish region in northern Iraq has struggled to recover from what the UN has a dubbed a genocide in 2014, when the so-called Islamic State group (IS) swept across the area and massacred thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority.

The intervention of air strikes and fighters belonging to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) eventually led to the governorate being retaken from IS, but control of the area has remained contested since then.

In addition, thousands of people remain housed in international displaced people (IDP) camps, including thousands on Shingal mountain.

Hussein Rasho, a doctor who was working in Shibgal until 10 days ago, said that although there had been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, the conditions in the area meant the impact would be devastating.

"There is no good care from the Iraqi government. All of the funding and facilities are coming from international organizations and sometimes local organizations," he told Middle East Eye.

"If an outbreak happens, it will be a disaster area.”

Rasho, who is now prevented from accessing Shingal by a government-imposed countrywide lockdown, said there were two main hospitals in the district left standing following the IS rampage: Sinuny Hospital and Shingal Hospital.

There are only around 20 beds in each hospital, and both remain heavily reliant on foreign organizations for their resources and equipment.

One organization providing support in Shingal is Nadia's Initiative, which was established by the former IS slavery victim Nadia Murad.

The NGO has been involved in distributing food and protective equipment in the district, as well as carrying out a disinfectant campaign in towns and villages.

However, much of the work - including building hospitals and the disinfectant campaign - has now had to be put on hold as a result of the lockdown, said Executive Director Abid Shamdeen.

"Lack of hospital beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment there now is a problem as soon as the virus hits - and of course we don’t know whether there are cases now because there is no testing there," he told MEE.

"So our hope is that the international community and hopefully the World Health Organization (WHO) in coordination with Iraqi and Kurdish authorities will put specific measures in place to get some resources there."

Rasho said that there had been a number of suspected cases in Shingal, which had come from soldiers sent from the south.

Rasho said his main concern came from the porous border with Syria, and the Kurdish groups travelling between Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

"The YPG (People's Protection Units) and PKK are still moving from Iraq to Syria, especially through the Rabia and Shingal [border crossings], so I think if something happens it will be very bad," he explained.

"The Kurds from Turkey and Syria are joining the others in Shingal, so it will be the source of infection because they are crossing the border, they have their own rules and their own routes and even before then no one could stop them."

The PKK has maintained a foothold in Shingal through the Shingal Resistance Units (YBS), a Yazidi-majority organization who have clashed with other Kurdish groups, including those supported by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Turkey also intermittently carries out airstrikes in Sinjar against the YBS and other targets it alleges are linked to the PKK, who have fought a guerilla war with Turkey since 1984.

Reporter’s code: 50101