BAGHDAD – Faced with sharp price rises, a decline in the buying power of the dinar and rising unemployment, Iraqis enter the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan with a feeling of dread.
“After a whole day of fasting, we have to eat something”, even if the price of a kilo of tomatoes has more than doubled, said Umm Hussein, a single mother of five who has no salary.
She struggles each month to raise the $45 rent for their modest home.
Like 16 million of Iraq’s 40-million population living under the poverty line, Umm Hussein relies on her ration card for food.
Under the legacy from the 1990s when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was under a stringent international embargo, every Iraqi whose household heads earns less than $1,000 a month is entitled to certain basic provisions at subsidised prices.
But this year, “we’ve only received the rations for February”, said Abu Seif, 36, who like his father before him has the job of distributing bags of subsidised goods.
“We still haven’t got the rations for Ramadan”, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, a period that starts this week.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had promised extra rations for the holy month. But “people are coming in or calling every day to ask when they’re arriving”, said Abu Seif.
In Abu Ammar’s grocery store, the credit line has been stretched so far that he fears not being able to pay his suppliers any more.
With prices rising sharply, “some families owe more than 200,000 dinars” ($130), the grocer said.
The authorities in energy-rich Iraq, with revenues slashed by the decline in world oil prices, last year devalued the dinar, which has lost 25 percent of its value against the dollar.
As a result, for example, the price for a bottle of cooking oil has gone up to 2,500 dinars, from 1,500 dinars.
On top of price hikes, Covid-19 restrictions such as lockdowns and curfews have killed jobs, especially the day jobs on which many Iraqis rely following decades of conflict.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says Iraqis are trapped in a vicious circle.
“Over 90 percent of small and medium enterprises in the food and agriculture sector reported being severely to moderately affected by the pandemic. To cope with decreased revenue, more than 50 percent either let staff go or reduced salaries,” it says.
A joke doing the rounds on Iraqi social media goes something like: “This year, salaries are in the group of death with Covid-19 and Eid al-Fitr (the feast marking the end of Ramadan). Not sure they will make it through to the next round.”
Haider, a 32-year-old civil servant, says it’s no laughing matter.
“Ramadan fills me with dread. We need a lot of things for the house and new clothes for the children,” he said.
Even in normal times, he struggles to pay the rent, for daily expenses and electricity charges with his monthly salary of $600.
Electricity is one of the heaviest financial burdens, in a country with at times 20-hours-a-day power cuts that force Iraqis to turn to private generators that run on pricey fuel.
Abu Ahmad, a 32-year-old colleague, says he will skip the traditions this Ramadan.
“I’m not going to be giving big dinners at my place, so as not to spread Covid”, he said. “But also, because I can’t afford it”.