An Iraqi soldier sanitizes a street during a curfew in Baghdad, Iraq, March 2020.
Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters

In early April, a video of an elderly woman in what looks to be a makeshift isolation ward in Iraq circulated widely on WhatsApp, shared by Iraqi doctors and journalists alarmed by their country’s apparent inability to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak. The woman, who is dressed in a blue hospital gown, struggles to breathe, but there is no oxygen mask over her face and no doctor nearby. Instead, another woman prays over her while a third bangs at the door, desperate for help that doesn’t appear to arrive. 

Other reports coming out of Iraq paint a picture of an overwhelmed health-care system. Worried about impending shortages of personal protective equipment, doctors are reusing N95 masks. The country has just 1.4 hospital beds and 0.8 physicians per 1,000 people—less than half the levels in some nearby countries. The Iraqi government claims there are only about 1,500 COVID-19 cases countrywide, but the actual number may be far higher—Iraq hasn’t tested at large scale. Nor does it have the surveillance capacity for rigorous contact tracing and monitoring. One physician at a Baghdad hospital told me that he and his colleagues are seeing 50 new COVID-19 cases a day—and it is getting

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