A personal take on lockdown in Baghdad’s Green Zone

May 1, 2020

By Hilary Stauffer, head of the Reporting, Policy and Strategy Unit in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Baghdad

I didn’t expect to miss the Hippo.

Currently in the middle of my ninth week of lockdown on the United Nations compound in the Green Zone in Baghdad, there are so many things that I miss from my life back home, beyond the compound gates: Thai food and well stocked grocery stores are just some of them (on my last trip to the tiny shop we have on the compound, I managed to buy laundry detergent and a pomegranate — it was all they had left). And yes, of course, family and friends — although if I’m honest, my loved ones have contacted me more in the last nine weeks than they have the previous 15 years.

But the Hippo — that was unexpected. Here in Iraq, “Hippos” refer not to river-dwelling mammals (the Tigris is hippo-free, as far as I know) but rather to the extra-large armored personnel carriers that are used to transport UN staff to and from the airport. Free of every conceivable comfort, including cushions, seatbelts, and shock absorbers, each Hippo ride threatens to induce nausea as the vehicle laboriously descends into and climbs out of every pothole on the road to the airport. Chipped teeth are a danger as your upper and lower jaw bang together when jolting over speedbumps. The literal roar of the engine makes conversation impossible. People usually look dazed when exiting a Hippo.

And yet now, the Hippo is the only sign of external life on the compound. It comes through twice a day, carrying troop rotations of the UN Guard Units from their nearby barracks. If you walk around at dawn or dusk, you will see it lumbering around corners, stopping to drop-off or pick-up members of the Fijian Guard Unit that keep watch on the compound. It is a reminder of life beyond the concrete walls. It’s a memento of the outside world, of a Time Before Coronavirus, when travel was possible, even predictable.

Because, of course, there is life outside the compound walls, it’s just not life as we know it in this unimaginably vibrant, multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-faith land. Iraq — a nation of nearly 40 million people with a health system that’s at least 40 years out-of-date (four decades of upheaval and armed conflict will take a toll) — is now facing the same killer virus that is upending life in much richer countries. Since the first confirmed case was detected on 24 February 2020, Iraq has cut itself off from neighbors and the wider world. With very few resources available to fight COVID-19, authorities — with the robust support of the World Health Organization (WHO) — had to move quickly and commandingly to close borders and shut airports to try and slow the transmission of the disease. Equally important, it imposed 24-hour-a-day curfews in every major city, as well as closing internal crossing points between provinces.

It hasn’t been easy. Iraqis are an unapologetically social people. “Large group gatherings” are a way of life. Yet it has, largely, worked: nine weeks after the first detected case, Iraq’s confirmed COVID-19 caseload is still below 2,000 people, and the death toll has not yet topped 100. This can only be a triumph.

But it does come with a cost. Although Iraq has the fifth largest oil reserves in the world, it is a country with significant vulnerabilities, now exacerbated by COVID-19. Half the population is under 25, where not many have experienced more than a few consecutive years without privation and unrest. The country has been in the grips of a political crisis since October 2019. And two years on from the end of armed conflict against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), 1.4 million people are still internally displaced, roughly a quarter of whom live in camps. The displaced face a multiplicity of obstacles: destroyed and damaged homes, property contaminated by unexploded ordinance, insecurity, ethno-religious tension, communal mistrust, and a lack of services and jobs. Any difficulties which existed pre-COVID-19 have now exponentially increased.

Amid this vulnerability, I’m proud to report the humanitarian system is rising to the immediate challenge. The United Nations and its NGO partners have re-oriented the immediate-term humanitarian response to address the immediate needs posed by COVID-19. Soon after the first case was detected, humanitarians began awareness-raising activities, both in IDP camps and among the wider population, spreading messages in English, Arabic and Kurdish. Partners began scaling up hygiene services to vulnerable communities and to different response sectors, including Health, Camp Management, Shelter, WASH, Food Security and Protection, planned how to isolate and quarantine mild-to-moderate cases of COVID-19 in camps, if necessary.

WHO is working closely with the Ministries of Health in both federal Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to support preparedness and response, and has created a dashboard to track the spread of the virus. Food security actors are re-calibrating which populations may become newly vulnerable as the lockdowns persist. With schools closed, the Education sector is supporting teachers to provide distance learning. Other organizations are putting people to work sewing masks and PPE equipment. Protection partners are keeping close watch on reports of rising domestic violence, and raising the alarm at the highest levels. Organizations that distribute cash to the most vulnerable are giving one-off cash grants to cover the purchase of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Through it all, accountability and communication with communities remains key: the Iraq Information Centre — a call centre that provides information on humanitarian assistance to IDPs, returnees, asylum seekers, refugees, and vulnerable host community members — has established a dashboard to track calls they receive about challenges the impact of COVID-19 on affected people.

As movement restrictions and airport closures keep many international staff working remotely, the COVID-19 field response in Iraq is carried out largely through the heroic efforts of national staff, from both UN agencies and civil society. They face daily adversities which requires patience, ingenuity and more than a little innate Iraqi stubbornness to overcome. Restrictions in the movement of people and goods are compounding long-standing access difficulties across the country, hampering humanitarians’ ability to reach people in need. Transporting medicines and supplies between governorates and across borders requires constant negotiation. OCHA’s sub-offices are in daily contact with governorate counterparts to facilitate these movements wherever possible.

Iraq, like the rest of the world, has a long way to go not just on COVID19 Humanitarian needs will persist, and will require the sustained support by the UN, partners and donors. But Iraq must be commended for the way it faced the multiple, overlapping threats, as should the UN, NGOs and civil society. It has been my privilege to serve in whatever way I can, even from the confines of the compound.

Nevertheless, there’s no harm in dreaming of life beyond the concrete walls — of Thai food, and yes, even of Hippos.

A personal take on lockdown in Baghdad’s Green Zone was originally published in Humanitarian Dispatches on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.