Iraq pushes vaccine rollout amid widespread apathy and mistrust

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BAGHDAD (AP) – The deployment of vaccines in Iraq was overdue for weeks. Apathy, fear and rumors have kept many people from getting vaccinated despite a serious rise in coronavirus infections and calls from the government for people to sign up for the vaccines.

It took the public approval of a populist Shiite clergyman for the vaccinations – and the footage of him being vaccinated last week – to make a difference.

Hundreds of Muqtada al-Sadr followers are now heading to clinics to follow his example, highlighting the power of sectarian loyalties in Iraq and the deep mistrust of the state.


“I was against the idea of ​​being vaccinated. I was scared, I didn’t believe it, ”said Manhil Alshabli, a 30-year-old Iraqi from the holy city of Najaf. “But that has all changed now.”

“Seeing him get vaccinated motivated me,” Alshabli said, speaking by phone from Najaf where he and many other al-Sadr loyalists were vaccinated, Alshabli likened it to soldiers under pressure when they see their leader on the front line.

Iraq is grappling with a severe second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. The number of new cases rose to more than 8,000 a day last month, the highest on record. The push was driven largely by public apathy towards the virus. Many routinely ignore virus restrictions, refusing to wear face masks and continuing to hold large public gatherings.

Daily rates declined last week, with 5,068 new cases reported on Monday.

The Iraqi health ministry has repeatedly tried to reassure Iraqis that the vaccines are not harmful, but this has not convinced many who harbor a long-standing distrust of the system. health.

Iraq’s centralized system, largely unchanged since the 1970s, has been wiped out by decades of war, sanctions, and protracted unrest since the 2003 US invasion. Successive governments have invested little in the sector.

Many avoid going to public hospitals. Last month, a massive fire ravaged the coronavirus ward of a Baghdad hospital, killing more than 80 people and injuring dozens. Iraqi Health Minister Hasan al-Tamimi was suspended for alleged negligence and resigned Tuesday following the incident.

So far, less than 380,000 people have been fully immunized in the country of 40 million people.

Last week, as slow vaccination efforts continued, photos of Al-Sadr in a black turban, wearing a black mask and having his arm stung, began circulating on social media.

Soon after, his supporters launched a vaccination campaign, calling on supporters to join them and posting pictures of themselves carrying his posters as they sat in medical centers receiving the vaccine.

The health ministry took advantage of the campaign by posting the photo of al-Sadr being vaccinated on its Facebook page, saying his vaccination was meant to encourage all citizens to do the same.

Faris Al-Lami, assistant professor of community medicine at the University of Baghdad, said the government was widely viewed as corrupt and its actions since the start of the pandemic only exacerbated public mistrust.

He cited some early practices, such as using security forces to take patients from their homes as if they were criminals, and postponing funerals of those who have died from the virus for several weeks.

Al-Lami also highlighted what he said are current problematic policies. For example, he said that high-risk patients, such as those with chronic illnesses or immunodeficiencies, have to wait inside hospitals to get vaccinated, putting them at high risk of infection. Meanwhile, people with personal relationships can get them easily.

According to him, it is a positive development when the vaccination of a political or religious figure encourages people to be vaccinated. “But the ideology of blindly following anyone’s decision is a disaster in itself,” he said.

Iraq received 336,000 new doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the end of March and Iraqis over 18 are qualified to receive the vaccine. Last month, the first shipment of doses of Pfizer arrived in the country, with 49,000 injections.

“All the vaccines that have arrived in Iraq are safe and effective … but until now some citizens are afraid of getting vaccinated due to malicious rumors,” said Ruba Hassan, an official with the Ministry of Health. .

The health ministry has introduced measures to urge Iraqis to get vaccinated. They include travel restrictions for those unable to present a vaccination card and layoffs of employees in stores, malls and restaurants. While the measures have led more people to get vaccinated, they have also confused and angered a still largely reluctant public.

Restaurant owners said they were blinded by the measures, unsure if it meant they risked closure if they refused.

“There is no clear law to follow,” said Rami Amir, 30, who owns a fast food restaurant in Baghdad. “I don’t want all of my staff to be vaccinated because they could have serious side effects or complications,” he said, echoing widespread skepticism.

Omer Mohammed, another restaurateur, said applicants for a new job at his restaurant had given up when he said vaccination cards were a necessary prerequisite.

Healthcare professionals were given priority to receive the vaccine and were able to pre-register in January when Iraq received its first shipment of 50,000 doses of Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.

When recent medical school graduate Mohammed al-Sudani, 24, went for the shot this month, he said the process was “bittersweet.” He presented without prior registration of the AstraZeneca vaccine. He didn’t need it. There was hardly anyone there.

The following week, he brought two of his aunts to the same center. There were only two other people in the waiting room.

“The nurse arrived and asked them to call their relatives and friends to come and increase the number to at least 10 people because the injections inside the vaccine kits were only valid for 6 hours”, he said.

It was a different scene in the hospitals that carry pictures of Pfizer. Tabark Rashad, 27, visited al-Kindi hospital in Baghdad last week. The waiting room was packed with dozens of people, raising concerns about infection.

“I went to protect myself from COVID-19, not have it in this room,” she said. “It was chaos.”

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