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COVID-19 in Kurdistan: ‘To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.’

By Goran Abdulla Sabir Zangana
on May 20, 2020

As of May 15, 2020, The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq has confirmed 397 COVID-19 cases and five deaths. While this number might seem low, the outbreak has serious political ramifications for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

The outbreak triggered a reactionary response among authorities in KRI. Recognising that decades of austerity measures in the health sector would undermine the ability of the health system to respond to the emergency, they decided to take a securitised approach to the response. With no legal framework to govern the response, the authorities justified their actions on the basis of ‘necessity’.

At the beginning of the outbreak, large numbers (thousands according to some estimates) of KRI’s residents were smuggled back into the region from Iran. In response, security force chiefs called on people to act as informants and report anyone suspected to have returned to KRI through smuggling, so that these people could be arrested. This securitised approach to the response is also evident in the quarantine system that has been adopted. Since most of the cases had either returned from the Islamic Republic of Iran or been in contact with a person who travelled to that country, the KRG ministry of health (MoH) and ministry of interior, issued mandatory quarantine orders for people who were returning from Iran. Thirty places were made available for this purpose, with five-star hotels being allocated to ‘VIPs’ and less expensive hotels and hostels to non-VIPs. Many people tried to avoid going to these dedicated quarantine locations, and the authorities responded decisively.

Employing tactics similar to those used in countries like Vietnam, the authorities pursued individuals who had managed to avoid or escape quarantine, using heavily armed security vehicles to take them into custody. Footage circulated on social media showed security forces violently attacking post-graduate students who had just returned from abroad, and who, citing poor conditions, refused to go into quarantine in the hotels. As a result of this, KRI quarantine is widely seen as a form of arrest.

The securitised approach response to the crisis is also apparent in the “lack of information sharing” by the authorities. That’s an understatement, as you might have guessed.

On March 24, the police in the capital city of Erbil arrested the journalist and human rights defender Hemin Mamand without an arrest warrant. Detained as a result of a complaint by the Governor of Erbil, he was accused of inciting social unrest because he criticised the  economic measures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Mamand was released from prison on April 5, after paying a bail of 5 million Iraqi dinars, only to be rearrested two days later. In a separate incident, on April 6, security forces detained another journalist for reporting on social distancing measures in a government office. Asyaish (KRI’s security forces) arrested Zryan Mohamed, a freelance reporter for the news website Awene, who had reported on the alleged failure of the Sulaymaniyah Chamber of Commerce to adhere to safety measures for the pandemic. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that “authorities held him for several hours and made him sign a pledge saying he would no longer do that type of reporting”. 

In addition to this, MoH has been accused of not being transparent, with several media outlets accusing it of either hiding or manipulating COVID-19 related information. One TV channel (NRT news agency) claimed that the MoH is exaggerating the number of cases and death from SARS-CoV2 in KRI, with the aim of discouraging people from demonstrating against the poor economic situation in the region. In response, the MoH sent a formal letter to the Attorney General in KRG demanding the closure of NRT.

Implications of the securitized response

The securitisation of the response to the COVID-19 outbreak in KRI has significant consequences in three key areas.

First, it has eroded the already low trust in the health system. Many are questioning the need for aggressive security measures and curfews in light of the low numbers of cases, and some are arguing that the authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to limit the freedom of movement and potentially demonstrations. The fact that the Minister of Health didn’t exactly make a strong impression in the response also doesn’t help: in general, he was perceived as weak and following the commands of the Ministry of Interior rather than his own ministry’s plan. In one case, he demanded a ‘clarification’ from the Ministry of Interior for the beating up of a doctor by the security forces. 

Second, the pandemic seems to have contributed to reinforcing existing political fault lines. For example, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has used the outbreak as an opportunity to ramp up its terrorist attacks. In the first week of April alone, ISIS conducted 29 attacks in Iraq, with one such attack resulting in the killing of two members of the Kurdish peshmerga forces. This surge in terrorist activities seems to be related to at least three Coronavirus-related factors: the withdrawal or suspension of the Global Coalition’s activities to focus on the fight against COVID-19; the release or escape of ISIS members from prisons in Iraq and Syria, and finally, the preoccupation of the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces with enforcing curfew orders. The aggressive security response to the crisis appears to have also exacerbated the already existing tensions among competing political factions in KRI. Some claim the curfew has been used as a pretext for settling political scores. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), an ally to Turkey, mobilised forces as part of the government’s response to enforce curfew in areas previously controlled by the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This area has been used by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) to launch attacks against Turkey. A standoff among forces affiliated to the three parties is putting the region at risk of another internal conflict. To make matters worse, Turkey has launched military attacks on this area. 

Third, in a region (MENA) with a bloody recent history, this sort of ‘heavy-handed’ response is perhaps also a reminder of past traumatic experiences that were the result of decades of political violence. One particular example is illuminating in this regard. A political prisoner who managed to escape from Iranian detention, crossed the border to KRI where he was arrested, quarantined and then handed over again to the Iranians. He was later executed by the Iranian authorities. The KRI was certainly not an exception in recent years, in the region. The risk of long-term psychological damage, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, due to quarantine or other “strong” measures, is thus probably higher than in many other parts of the world. The impact of restricting personal and public freedoms needs to be explored.

Some, including the KRG authorities, have argued that the securitised response to the pandemic has contributed to the low numbers of cases in the region. Even if this were true,   it is not without certain implications, as we have seen. While the long-term consequences remain to be seen, one can almost certainly predict further unrest and destabilisation in a region that is already so fragile.

Two ambulances waiting for the transfer of patients on a road blocked by rocks at the ‘border’ between the areas of influence of rival political parties in Kurdistan 
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