Kurdistan region prepares for coronavirus threat

The spread of coronavirus now threatens the economic success of the Kurdish region if borders close or oil exports are changed.

A man is seen next to Kurdistan's flag as members of The American Rojava Center for Democracy, an organization that advocates for freedom, democracy, and peace in Syria, take part with other activists in a rally to protest Turkey's incursion into Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria and urge U.S. acti (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS JASSO)
A man is seen next to Kurdistan's flag as members of The American Rojava Center for Democracy, an organization that advocates for freedom, democracy, and peace in Syria, take part with other activists in a rally to protest Turkey's incursion into Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria and urge U.S. acti
(photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS JASSO)
The Kurdistan region in Iraq is at the crossroads of Iran, Turkey and Iraq. Strategically wedged between powerful neighbors, it has important trade ties with both Iran and Turkey.
The spread of coronavirus now threatens the economic success of the Kurdish region if borders are sealed or oil exports slashed. Long lines at gas stations on Monday revealed the concerns people have.
Many people have taken refuge in the Kurdish region over the last years as war has affected Iraq and Syria. Minorities, such as Yazidis and Christians, have fled to the autonomous region. In addition, many people from Iraq have come to Erbil for work and security. Iranian refugees, many of them Kurds, also live in northern Iraq.
The Kurdistan region is closely following developments in Iran and southern Iraq. Reports on Monday of the first coronavirus case in Najaf led to stocking up of medical kits and masks in Erbil and other cities in the region. The health minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has sought to assure people that everything is under control. But people still are hoarding gasoline and other goods. In addition, some pharmacies caught trying to overcharge for protective masks were closed by authorities.
The Kurdistan region has sought to revive its economy over the last two years since a September 2017 referendum. It is now in the midst of negotiations with Baghdad over its budget. Baghdad has sought to reduce the budget of the region, and some Iraqi politicians, including Muqtada al-Sadr, have incited against the Kurdistan region’s Peshmerga security forces.
This is because Iraqi politicians tend to push nationalist and anti-Kurdish agendas to get votes. The region was working with former prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi before he resigned. KRG President Nechirvan Barzani and Prime Minister Masrour Barzani must start again with Baghdad’s new prime minister, Mohammed Allawi. There are concerns he may not be as keen on working with Erbil. He has sought to sideline the main Kurdish parties, the KDP and PUK.
The coronavirus scare comes at a bad time for Iraq, with the protests that have rocked southern Iraq, ISIS threats, US-Iran tensions and the need for a new government. In addition, the crisis in Iran and Syria and Turkish airstrikes against PKK militants all add to the woes of the country. The Kurdish region has been an island of peace and stability. But to remain that way it needs the problems of neighboring areas to be reduced, not exacerbated by a new crisis.
Large numbers of refugees and displaced people still live in northern Iraq, and Mosul needs to be rebuilt after the war on ISIS. The lack of basic services in places like Sinjar and near Mosul, and the presence of Shi’ite and other militias, means that health concerns are not on the top of the agenda of authorities in Nineveh and Kirkuk.
Yet this is exactly the time when health officials need to be on guard against the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Porous borders and smuggling are also a threat as traffickers can carry the virus. Shi’ite militias, backed by Iran, do not observe the same rules as the government. They bring weapons to Iraq via undisclosed channels and clandestine networks without the usual checks.
They are not subject to customs or health checks. A single coronavirus case in just one internally displaced persons camp anywhere in the area of northern or central Iraq could be catastrophic. From Najaf to Kirkuk, across a swath of central Iraq, there is concern that the contagion is spreading. Everyone from Baghdad to Erbil is watching.
It is symbolic of how unhelpful Baghdad has been that one of the telephone numbers reportedly distributed to call in an emergency does not work. The Gulf emirates, wealthy and with resources to quarantine people, may not be of help either. Kuwait and Iraq have sealed their border with each other. Bahrain and other small Gulf states may soon be cutting off air travel.