Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Kidneys for Sale at $500 Each

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Kidneys for Sale at $500 Each

Article excerpt

In Iraq, people walk barefoot, and doctors have lost interest in ethics.

Baghdad today is a very different place from the modern, affluent city I knew in the 1980s. After nine years of war and sanctions, everyone's daily life is dominated by the need to survive the shortages, the unfamiliar rigours of poverty, the collapse of services. Cracks are appearing in the social fabric that may, in the long term, prove more difficult to repair than bombed power stations and cracked sewers.

Walking down the street, one sees the evidence of poverty everywhere. Once-fashionable clothes are now shabby and patched, and it is common to see people walking barefoot in the city centre. Old and noisy cars emit stinking exhaust, and their rusty holes are covered with an ingenious patchwork of materials.

Anything is available on the black market - but at a price. A junior hospital doctor is paid about 3,500 Iraqi dinars (ID) a month ([pounds]1 = ID3000), and an experienced teacher earns a maximum of ID7,000, but a kilo of meat costs ID2,400, and a 450g tin of milk is ID1,500.

Under these circumstances, most ordinary people have to sell possessions regularly in order to eat. Houses are becoming bare. Ornaments went, then rugs, cushions, utensils and now furniture. In some school playgrounds, teachers have set up stalls to sell their surplus household items. Parents feel a pressure to buy and they claim there is a connection between their spending and the examination marks that their children can expect to achieve.

The whole education system is in decline. Materials and equipment are not replaced, buildings are decaying and students are leaving school early and not going on to higher education, because they need to work if they are to eat. All this in a country that once had one of the highest percentages of graduates in the Arab world.

Anyone who can supplement their income with a second job will do so. A university engineering lecturer will come home as soon as he can to mend other people's radios. The city's main teaching hospital has a short operating list - because surgeons leave at lunchtime to drive taxis or cut hair.

The electricity supply to every household is now cut for 12 hours every day. The old houses of Baghdad were built to withstand the summer heat and keep food cold, but perishable food is often seen on open lorries in the searing heat, because there are no spare parts for refrigerated transport. The domestic water supply is often so brown that it stains the clothes washed in it, nobody collects the rubbish and burst pipes in the street are as likely to discharge sewage as water.

With all of this, the incidence of infection and food poisoning is high and increasing, but the shortage of drugs remains a critical problem, except on the black market. …

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