Shano regrets volunteering to work at hospitals fighting coronavirus after losing her mother due to Covid-19 infection. On the eve of the outbreak, regardless of any financial entitlements, she vows to treat coronavirus patients, so in March 2020, she and a number of colleagues volunteer to work hospitals for free to provide health assistance.
According to health statistics, 5,000 people have volunteered in Sulaymaniyah province alone. Although the Kurdistan Regional Government KRG's Ministry of Health needs about 7,000 new employees, according to the volunteers, “the ministry has not taken their role into account.”
On March 4, 2020, the first death from coronavirus in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region IKR was recorded in Sulaymaniyah province, a religious teacher. This incident put the threat of the epidemic into the heart of the people and the KRG to a new stage, practical steps began and gradually declared a general quarantine and the Ministry of Health began to mobilize human resources and collect medical supplies for hospitals.
Shanoo Sherko is one of thousands of volunteers. She graduated from the College of Nursing of Sulaymaniyah University in 2019 and started working as a volunteer in the Shar (city) general hospital and Hiwa (Hope) Hospital for cancer treatment on June 1st of the same year.
The KRG and the federal Iraqi government have suspended employment following the war against the Islamic State ISIS due to budget deficit following the war as most of the national budget is spent on public servant payroll.
“In public hospitals, they were shouting and begging who is willing to go to work in Shahid Tahir Ali Wali Beg Hospital in Sarchinar for Covid treatment?” Shano recalls.
“Initially, health officials said that any hospital employee who goes to Shahid Tahir Hospital will receive a monthly salary of one million dinars (USD800), and any unemployed graduate who works as a volunteer will get a permanent contract,” she said.
According to reports, all the hospitals tried to convince doctors and nurses to work at the Covid-19 hospital, although they were later regretted this attempt, Shano revealed.
"Some of the permanent employees hired volunteers to replace them and did not even want to come to those hospitals.”
Some of the permanent employees hired volunteers to replace them and did not even want to come to those hospitals
Hawzhin Osman, president of the Sulaymaniyah branch of the health workers union, who was also appointed by the director general of health to form a team for the hospital, confirmed Shano's story.
“Most of the physicians and paramedics were leaving hospitals and never picking up our calls. It was the volunteers who were at the fronts defending ding us by fighting Coronavirus,” Osman affirmed.
“There were some doctors and employees whom we asked to work in the coronavirus hospitals. They brought us medical reports that they had mental illnesses.”
Posting a picture on a friend's social media story urged Shano to move her volunteer work to the first battlefield of defense and fight against coronavirus in Sulaymaniyah.
Her father rejected the idea yet Shano convinced him while her mother was very supportive, saying that was her duty and never to turn her back.
After two weeks of work the hospital, a number of Shano’s colleagues quit working at the hospital due to the dangerous situation.
"The religious teacher's condition was very bad until he died," Shano said.
According to the statistics of Sulaymaniyah health and the health workers union, about 1,000 people worked as volunteers in the health sector centers in Sulaymaniyah on the eve of the fight against coronavirus.
Volunteers fighting Covid-19 for free, permanent fully-paid staff leaving and taking leaves
According to the statistics of the health workers union in Sulaymaniyah, only in the hospital of Shahid Dr. Hemn (Jumhuri), one of the hospitals dedicated to the coronavirus, had 300 volunteers, while all its permanent employees were 700 people.
"The volunteers have managed two wards and the reception department of the hospital, but the 700 employees and doctors have only two wards," said Osman, president of the union.
- Ali Naji Clinic: 70% of the employees were volunteers
- Shahid Dr. Hemn (Jumhuri) Hospital: 45% of its employees were volunteers
- Shahid Dr. Hospital Asso: 40% of employees were volunteers
- Shahid Tahir Ali Wali Beg Hospital: 80% of the staff of were volunteers
“I am responsible for what I am saying. Half of the coronavirus fight has been accomplished by volunteers,” Osman confirmed.
I am responsible for what I am saying. Half of the coronavirus fight has been accomplished by the volunteers
In April, the coronavirus reached a full-scale outbreak in Sulaymaniyah. More hospitals were allocated. Shano was attending Shahid Tahir Ali Wali Beg Hospital a week and Shahid Dr. Asso the next week, working six days a week.
“We have been in the hospital for six months, but the government has not given us any money except financial assistance from several officials and organizations,” she blamed the KRG. Later, the volunteers have decided to leave hospitals unless given concrete promises for employment.
"This attitude has forced the director of health in Sulaymaniyah to visit the hospital himself," Shano said.
Shano’s colleagues told her that there was a big difference in paying and rewarding volunteers in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Zryan Khalid, a paramedic employed per temporary contract in Erbil and has not received his salary for four months, said the volunteers work second jobs to earn their daily expenses.
“In this way, we make some money to cover our transportation and food while working for free at public hospitals.”
Sima Jalal, who graduated from Halabja Technical Institute with a nursing degree, has been volunteering in for two years in four health centers and hospitals.
“Despite our commitment to working in hospitals for free without any rights, people say the government is not hiring because of us.”
"If there is appreciation, they should hire us," she said.
In the eighth and ninth cabinets, the KRG Ministry of Health relied on the capacity of volunteers in health centers. However, because volunteering is relatively free to do or give up, the Ministry of health could not keep ac accurate statistics on their numbers in the IKR.
Volunteers are victims in two ways: the lack of legal enforcement of their rights to work in hospitals and on the other hand, their risky daily contact with their family members during the coronavirus pandemic.
When Shano was returning home during the weekends at different times, she had contact with his entire family, although followed the precautions, but in July 2020, Shano tested positive of Covid-19 during which she was monitored by her mother until safely returned to hospital.
Shano's mother also tested positive in August 2020 with symptoms of cough, fever and shivering.
"My mother was in constant pain; she couldn't sleep or rest.”
Shano had one foot in her mother's room and one foot in the room of other patients. At that time, she could hardly find time or space to rest, or cry out in pain, or cry for death.
She slams ate relevant authorities that there was no unified protocol for treating coronavirus patients, citing her mother as an example, saying that because her liver enzymes were elevated, two specialists had different opinions on whether to use paracetamol or not for her mother.
On the last day of her mother's life, Qadriya Saeed, she brought her father and uncle to the hospital for farewell. She is devastated up to the present. She is sad they couldn’t wash and bury her mother in the proper way.
This incident was tough for Shano, who, despite her volunteer work, is responsible for raising five children. Shano struggled to answer that question as she revealed that her mother told her in her last conversation with her, "Take care of the kids and don't hurt anyone's heart."
On her mother’s gravestone is inscribed, “Mother of the Poor,” Shano tells. Her mother, secretly and openly, had been helping poor people, her neighbors and relatives for over a decade.
“If I had the same mentality before volunteering now, I would never have volunteered,” says Shano after losing his mother, who was her main motivator.
He believes that in order for graduates to have a valid excuse to volunteer, "it is important to be respected and have a monthly reward, even if it is small amount.”
Shano is not the only volunteer who lose a beloved member of her family. Similar stories have been recorded in Erbil, Duhok, Sulaymaniyah and Halabja. According to Sarbast Sarhad, a representative of the volunteers in Sulaymaniyah province, five other cases have been registered in the province alone.
“We have had volunteers who have not gone home for three months and have constantly provided health services to patients in health centers. Although they have saved hundreds of lives, they were not destined were to save their own parents.”
Apart from rewards by some organizations and political figures, the volunteers did not benefit from any public funds during these months. After the strike and protests, the government took a new step in two ways, giving "incentive money and six-month contracts to 502 volunteers.”
Dr. Ma'af Abdullah, Director General of the Office of the KRG Ministry of Health, said: "We consider ourselves indebted to the volunteers to fight the coronavirus.”
The KRG has compensated 119 employees and doctors passed away due to the coronavirus, although there are no accurate statistics on those who volunteered and lost family members, but, according to the Director General of the Office of the Ministry of Health, there are no plans to compensate them.
Corona fighters’ contracts
There are more than 500 employees in Erbil, Duhok, Sulaymaniyah and Halabja provinces who have been employed on temporary contracts for the coronavirus centers. Tough their contracts have been renewed three times, they have not been paid their daily wage of USD10 per day, not payable during off days.
Ziryan Khalid, a postgraduate of Nursing College at Salahaddin University in 2016 and has been working in the health sector for two years, said, “local health officials in Erbil told us since Covid has come to end, contracts won’t be renewed.
Local officials deny Khalid’s allegations.
The Director General of the Bureau of the Ministry of Health said, "On September 13, 2022, we officially addressed the Council of Ministers to renew the contracts of the 502 employees.”
Since the pandemic lasts, their contracts have not been amended.
"Every day, the ministry registers new cases of coronavirus, but the council of ministers decides what is their plan," he added.
"They told us this contract is almost permanent contract but it is not declared in order not to instigate protests (of the unemployed postgraduates)," Ziryan said.
"It turned out that this is not true. It may be renewed only once," Ziryan said.
Therefore, in order to protect the salaries and rights of these employees, their representatives have asked the Health Committee of the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament to pressure the contract to change the type of contract from "corona contract" to annual contracts and fully-paid salaries.
According to a letter from the Ministry of Finance, 502 nurses holding diploma and bachlore degrees have been employed per contracts as follows:
Erbil province: 155 people
Sulaymaniyah Province: 125 people
Duhok province: 115 people
Halabja province: 30 people
Raperin Administration: 32 people
Garmian Administration: 30 people
Koya district: 15 people
According to the 11-points contract form, point number eight states that the first party (the Ministry of Health) has the right to terminate the contract at any time without prior notice.
Luqman Wardi, a member of the health committee in the Kurdistan parliament, described such a type of contract as "unreasonable."
"The contract by the Ministry of Health with this number of volunteers is really unbalanced, not guaranteeing even meals (during working shifts).”
Every year in the KRG health sector, employees and doctors retire, but there are no clear steps to permanent contract employees or employ graduates of medical departments, which is another common concern of the volunteers and those employed per temporary contracts.
"This is a local organization process that the Ministry of Health of the Kurdistan Regional Government benefits from annually. The Wolrd Health Organization WHO is not involved in this process," said Chiman Akrayi, WHO Coordinator in the IKR.
"While we did not have sufficient manpower, there were people who sacrificed, now that we tell them to go home, this means disloyalty. The health minister should take these concerns of health workers into the meetings of the Council of Ministers," said head of health workers union.
While we didn't have sufficient manpower, there were people who made sacrifices. Now that we tell them to go home, it means disloyalty
So far, there is no law in the IKR to regulate the duties and rights of volunteers, and the KRG has no guidelines for this group, said Shayan Askari, deputy chairman of the Health, Environment and Consumer Rights Committee in the Kurdistan Parliament.
"The Gorran (Change) faction submitted a bill to regulate the affairs of volunteers and determine their rights and submitted it to the presidency of the parliament, but the presidency did not put it on the agenda, and the KRG was not cooperative," she said.
Dr. Sabah Zebari, head of the Kurdistan Parliament's Health, Environment and Consumer Rights Committee, denied that they had officially submitted any projects, but said they had verbally told the government to take efforts by the missing Peshmergas (volunteer paramedics) into consideration.
“In 2016 and 2017, the least number of people were employed in the health sector. We have been coordinating with the Ministry of Health, to hire the volunteers from the departments of chemistry, biology, nursing and anesthesia on contract basis to level up their expertise,” Zebari elaborated.
"It is wrong to stop employment in the health sector even if the government does not open the door to employment in all other sectors," Wardi believes.
As a result of retirement, death, departure and unpaid leave, since the beginning of the financial crisis until 2022, about 7,000 services have created vacancies in the health sector, for this purpose, the health committee has called for permanent contracts and volunteers to replace them.
Without the role of volunteers, the health sector would have been disrupted during the pandemic
“Volunteers have played a huge role in the fight against the coronavirus. Without the role of volunteers, the health sector would have been disrupted during the fight against the coronavirus They were managed.”
The outflow of graduates expands the scope of volunteering
There are 9,000 employees in the health sector and 12,000 unemployed graduates in Sulaymaniyah province, where Shano and her colleagues have volunteered. According to the data of the health workers union in Sulaymaniyah, about 5,000 people have volunteered at different rates up to the present.
Osman, president of the Sulaymaniyah branch of the union, believes that there is no coordination between the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Health, therefore the plan to increase the number of seats in scientific departments of health has created inflation. He accuses them of overlooking the needs of health sector.
According to the union, "graduates of 2022 and next year 2023 will be 18,000, double the total number of employees in the health sector in Sulaymaniyah and unemployed graduates in Sulaymaniyah.”
Most health sector graduates volunteer for experience and employment, because it is a priority for them. Luqman Wardi believes that the excuses given by the Ministry of Health for not recruiting volunteers are unbelievable.
"The current financial situation of the Kurdistan Regional Government is good, and these volunteers have played a great role in the fight against the coronavirus and should be rewarded by employment," he thinks.
Hawzhin Osman denied that they forced people to volunteer.
“Bonuses and temporary contracts were two ways they dealt with the unemployed, but this process did not last. We have also tried to employ some of our volunteers in the departments and hospitals that have revenue and we have requested that 80% of the employees of private hospitals to be from volunteers.”
Shano did what she could by helping the government and her community in times of trouble when the coronavirus was plaguing everyone, for which she lost her dearest person. But the question is how the government will treat thousands of people like Shano failry.
Note: This investigation was prepared by journalist Ahmad Mustafa, within the framework of (Rooted in Trust) project implemented by (Internews) in partnership with (KirkukNow).