BAGHDAD – In a country where most people believe God will protect them, but their government will not, a popular Shiite cleric is needed to encourage a stumbled Iraqi vaccination program.
Iraq is preparing for a dangerous summer, with widespread skepticism over coronavirus precautions, limited vaccine supplies and a troubled health system.
But last week, Moktada al-Sadr, whose lineage from a respected Shiite family commands respect among millions of Iraqis, was shown in a video dropping his robe and taking his hand for the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm in the holy city of Najaf.
Vaccination clinics in Najaf province had so far recorded only about 300 vaccinations a day. Two days after the video was released, that number climbed to nearly 2,000 a day until clinics ran out of vaccines on Wednesday. They expect to get more in two weeks.
But an increase in the number of Mr Sadr’s followers may not be enough to save Iraq from a devastatingly high rate of infection.
Vaccines did not start arriving in the country until the end of March. So far, only one percent of the population has been vaccinated – about 400,000 people, which is far from the 30 percent that the government is aiming for by the end of the year.
Even if millions more Iraqis are persuaded to be vaccinated, it is unclear whether those doses will be available amid global scarcity. Covax, a global vaccine exchange partnership, is assigned 1.7 million doses for a country of 40 million people.
Last month, coronavirus cases in Iraq officially exceeded one million since the pandemic began, a figure that public health officials believe significantly too few infections, as many people have never been formally diagnosed.
But millions of people stay away from vaccines anyway, most invoking conspiracy theories about side effects or the belief that God will protect them from viruses.
“We Iraqis rely on God and the Prophet’s house,” said Mustafa Wael, one of hundreds of riot police officers deployed in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. “Maybe God will save me from the coronavirus. Maybe God is testing my patience. “
Mr Wael, a law graduate, said his doctor told him he knew the vaccine could cause sterility and cancer. He said he thought the pandemic was exaggerated and did not follow the instructions of the health ministry.
After more than a decade of U.S.-led sanctions drained Iraq’s health care system, years of corruption, mismanagement and government dysfunction following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 have left hospitals incapable of coping.
Iraq, a high-middle-income country suffering from a severe financial crisis, has put together a vaccination program with AstraZeneca vaccines from Covax, Chinese donations from Sinopharma and the purchase of a $ 100 million World Bank loan financed by Pfizer-BioNTech.
The vaccination program was to start with the elderly, health workers, those with chronic diseases and security forces. However, a significant number of Iraqi health workers, about 200,000, refuse vaccines, officials say.
In Tahrir Square, where hundreds of police officers have been deployed since anti-government protests were toppled more than a year ago, almost none of the police officers wore masks, and few said they were ready to be vaccinated.
Across the street, a group of police officers took shelter from the sun, sitting near their plastic shields at the entrance to the apartment building. Of the five police officers in the group, all in their twenties, only one said he planned to get the vaccine.
There, the guardian of the building, Raheem Ali Kadhim, said that he no longer shook hands, that he went to large gatherings or that he allowed relatives in the family home. But Mr Kadhim, 79, said he did not trust Iraqi hospitals and would not go to the hospital if he fell ill. He said he would not get the vaccine.
“God created me and you,” he said. “Worship God and God will save you.”
Across the square, Ahmed, a police officer who did not want his last name used because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he had concerns about the side effects.
“There is information that I have to confirm, which says that a vaccinated person should not have sexual intercourse or marry an unvaccinated person, because that could lead to deformed children,” he said, referring to false rumors that were circulating. “Especially on social media, there are people who say they are doctors who talk about such things, and who scare people.”
Ahmed, 28, said he got Covid-19 despite wearing masks and disinfecting his hands. He said he was quarantined at home with an oxygen tank until he recovered. As for social distancing, he said, “Here we are ordered to wear masks, but we sleep in barracks with 28 people in the room. How can we stay distanced? “
With official infection rates exceeding 6,000 a day, the health care system is struggling to prevent and treat Covid patients.
“It’s a system that’s been falling apart in the last 20 years,” Omar Ebeid, coordinator of the Covid project in Baghdad, told Doctors Without Borders international medical aid group.
Since 2003, he said, frequent changes in government and political appointments in the health ministry have taken a heavy toll.
“You can see that it has resulted in a health system that is struggling to function,” he said. “But it’s also the case that Covid is everywhere like a stress test where you can see where the cracks are in the system.”
Last month, a fire engulfed a Baghdad patient hospital in Covid after an oxygen canister exploded, killing more than 100 people, mostly patients and their relatives. There were no smoke detectors or spray systems in the hospital.
The health minister was forced to resign, and other officials were arrested. Iraqi ministries are divided among powerful political parties with the health ministry under the control of the Sadr political bloc.
Mr Sadr, who has tried to portray himself above politics and still plays a key role in Iraq’s political system, said all officials convicted of injustice should be punished.
The Ministry of Health struggled to convey its message.
“Some people still don’t believe in the existence of the virus and don’t believe in the effectiveness of the vaccine,” said Dr. Ruba Falah Hassan, from the media office of the ministry.
In many vaccination clinics outside the Sadr stronghold, there was so little demand that any Iraqi with an ID card or a foreigner with a passport could be vaccinated after a few minutes of waiting.
Near central Baghdad Street in Palestine, about 30 people were waiting for Sinopharm vaccine on plastic chairs at Al Edreesi Health Center on Thursday. In this middle-class neighborhood, most of those waiting seemed to be professionals or students.
“We ask everyone who took the vaccine to send a message of encouragement in their groups. ”Said Afraa al-Mullah, from the media department of the health center. “Anyone who has taken the vaccine must speak up and say, ‘Here I am. I’m fine, get vaccinated. ‘”
The more word spreads that vaccines are not harmful, he hopes, the more Iraqis would agree to be vaccinated.
“Iraq’s population is 40 million, 20 million must be vaccinated,” she said, calling the 400,000 vaccinated “a drop in the ocean.” She added: “We have people who do not believe in coronavirus. How can we convince them to get vaccinated? “
Falih Hassan and Nermeen al-Mufti contributed to the reporting.