In 1930, Iraq opened its first modern medical school. The idea had been driven by a young British Surgeon, Harry Sinderson, who had convinced the king that the country needed a modern medical training facility which would help to improve the lives of his subjects. For most of the twentieth century, Iraq maintained a strong reputation for excellence in medical treatment. However, the past three decades have done much to undo this reputation, with medical care neither accessible nor affordable, with the health system in a state of crisis.
Iraq has one of the lowest life expectancies in the region with the average age of 69 years old, according to the World Bank. In contrast, its equally oil-rich neighbour of Kuwait is 76 and in Iran, which has been crippled economically by sanctions, the population can still expect to live to at least 74. Undoubtedly, conflict and war have played their part in reducing Iraqis’ outcomes, but this does not explain the whole story.
A study from the UK think tank, Chatham House, showed that there is systematic corruption across Iraq’s healthcare system, from corrupt customs officers at the borders, to pharmacists selling counterfeit drugs, to doctors oversubscribing medicine and overcharging for basic treatments.
Iraq’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani, is under no illusions of the scale of the problem and has made tackling it a priority for this government. Following his appointment, the Prime Minister committed to providing an additional thousand hospital beds to meet patient demand. No other person has spent more time in and out of hospitals, other than medical professionals and the unwell. The Prime Minister personally attended new hospital openings in Baghdad, Maysan, Basra, and Mosul during the first 10 months of his premiership.
The World Health Organization’s representative in Iraq noted that the Prime Minister’s first site visit was to a hospital, and commended the government’s “significant efforts” in improving the healthcare system. Much of the improvement comes down to a more stable political situation, with the appointment of the Prime Minister, a consensus figure, helping to ensure the Iraqi government can return to the job of governing.
The Prime Minister was able to pass the country’s largest budget in history, allocating much needed investment into the healthcare system. Almost USD $7bn (10 tr dinar), has been provided for healthcare provision in this year’s budget, with a further USD $1.2bn (1.6 tr dinar) on medicine alone.
Many of the outstanding issues relate to stalled projects which previous governments have failed to deliver. Last week, the government was finally able to introduce a new health insurance system, which will give all Iraqis access to healthcare. As part of the scheme, the government will cover 75% of the cost for surgeries performed in private hospitals. The government has also promised that the scheme will not exceed 1% of an employee’s salary, with the contribution the equivalent to USD ($7-32). A trial has begun for 300,000 people in Baghdad, with the programme due to be rolled out across the country.
In addition, the Prime Minister has targeted the poorest provinces with 500 bn dinars ($381m) in spending through Iraq’s reconstruction fund, which is aimed at improving services (including access to healthcare) as well as the infrastructure, electricity, and educational services that are so essential for adequate healthcare provision.
This government knows that the next election will be won on public services. Iraqis are tired of a system that does not work for them, and how healthcare has been neglected by previous administrations. These concrete examples of progress show that Prime Minister Al Sudani is wasting no time in dealing with these longstanding issues. Showing clear signs of delivery will go some way to combatting the disillusionment in the political system. The Prime Minister and his government know that they must show real progress if they are to succeed at the election in 2025.