Doctor Shayan Askary was one the many doctors who decided to boycott work and demand better working conditions through a protest that started on 25 March 2018, in the streets of Erbil in Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI). What she and her colleagues did not expect was the violence encountered from the authorities refusing to respond to their demands. She was attacked by a plain-clothed security officer, her mobile phone broken and verbally abused.
Dr Askkary, an oncologist, was not the only healthcare worker who was insulted. Scores of doctors, nurses and other allied health personnel were physically attacked, harassed and intimidated during these demonstrations. Mr Beston Fatah, an advanced nurse practitioner, was beaten by a group of unknown persons while he was demonstrating along with his colleagues in Slemany Teaching Hospital. Dr Zana Dzaey, an internal medicine consultant, was also physically and verbally abused after reading a statement on behalf of demonstrating doctors in Hawler Teaching Hospital in Erbil.
The authorities continued their campaign of intimidation even after doctors and health workers chose to end the demonstrations (at least for now). Organizers and leaders of the demonstrations are being punished by the health authorities. Dr Kawa Khalil (an Ophthalmologist), Dr Hiwa Khalid Qadir (an Internal Medicine specialist) and Muhammed Abdulkarim (a physiotherapist) were formally punished by Rizgary Teaching Hospital Management for their role in organizing and leading the demonstrations. Dr Rezan Hardi, an emergency medicine consultant, was fired from her job as the head of department in Slemany Emergency Hospital for choosing to boycott work and join the demonstrations by her colleagues. Dr Kazim Faroug and Dr Samir Salih, both oncologists, were also punished for their leadership in the demonstrations.
The list goes on and on and is likely to grow. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers decided to join teachers and other civil servants in unprecedented demonstrations demanding better working conditions in KRI. Public servants have not received their full salaries since 2014. In that year, KRI faced a triple financial, security and environmental shock. Oil prices, KRI’s main source of revenue, have gradually decreased. ISIS attacked and occupied the second largest city in Iraq, displacing millions to KRI. That very summer, an unprecedented drought caught the authorities by surprise. The combination of such crises stretched health services to the limits of breakdown.
Acting on advice from the World Bank and IMF, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) introduced severe austerity measures. One such measure is known as the ‘mandatory saving scheme’. The KRG continued to pay oil companies their dues while providing only a quarter of civil servants’ salaries according to the available scheme. The authorities promised to pay public servants their full salaries once the crisis has ended. However, now that ISIS is essentially defeated and oil prices have recovered, the authorities continued with the scheme triggering outrage and anger which resulted in mass demonstrations and strikes. Beside attempting to intimidate demonstrating health workers, the authorities also tried to blame the demonstrations for problems with access to healthcare during the strikes. Several persons, reportedly encouraged by the authorities, attacked doctors’ clinics in at least one town in KRI. Facebook posts attacked doctors for their ‘greed’ and incited violence against them.
Health workers strike and demonstrations are likely to continue in KRI. The crackdown by authorities is also likely to continue and escalate particularly after assertions by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani that the KRG will respond with ‘knives and pistols’ against demonstrators.
The sufferings of health workers in KRI are not isolated incidents limited to a particular geography. They are a consequence of the aggressive neoliberal policies and severe austerity that our world experienced in the post 2008 financial crisis. Therefore, the current events in KRI deserve not only solidarity but also a closer analysis to learn and draw lessons from.