By Julia Marnin On 5/5/21 at 11:15 AM EDT
An Iraqi Shiite cleric’s public COVID-19 vaccination has caused hundreds of his followers to head to clinics to get vaccinated, as fear and rumors have stunted Iraq’s vaccine rollout among a second wave of infections, the Associated Press reported.
Public images of populist Shiite Muqtada al-Sadr getting vaccinated last week circulating online has prompted many to put aside their distrust of the Iraqi government, which called for its citizens to get vaccinated.
“I was against the idea of being vaccinated. I was afraid, I didn’t believe in it,” Manhil Alshabli, 30, told the AP. “But all this has changed now.”
“Seeing him getting the vaccine has motivated me,” Alshabli added and compared watching al-Sadr get vaccinated as soldiers watching their leader in the front lines of a battle.
After al-Sadr received his shot, those loyal to him launched a vaccination campaign and urged others to do the same while posting photos of themselves holding posters of al-Sadr as they received their vaccines.
Many of al-Sadr’s followers, including Alshabli, received their vaccinations in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, and daily rates of infections decreased last week.
Iraq’s Health Ministry shared the photo of al-Sadr getting vaccinated on its Facebook page as a post of encouragement.
The Health Ministry has encouraged that the vaccines are safe, but many Iraqis do not trust the nation’s healthcare system. Out of Iraq’s population of 40 million, fewer than 380,000 citizens have been vaccinated against the virus.
For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.
Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr
Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (R) drives a car as he joins anti-government demonstrators gathering in the central holy city of Najaf on October 29, 2019. After photos of al-Sadr getting vaccinated last week circulated, it prompted hundreds of his followers to follow suit, the Associated Press reported. Haidar Hamdani/AFP via Getty Images
Al-Sadr followers becoming vaccinated underscores the power of sectarian loyalties in Iraq and a deep mistrust of the state.
New case numbers spiked to over 8,000 per day last month, the highest they have ever been. The surge was driven largely by public apathy toward the virus. Many routinely flout virus-related restrictions, refusing to wear face masks and continuing to hold large public gatherings.
5,068 new cases were reported on Monday.
Iraq’s centralized system, largely unchanged since the 1970s, has been ground down by decades of war, sanctions and prolonged unrest since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Successive governments have invested little in the sector.
Many avoid going to public hospitals altogether. Last month, a massive blaze tore through the coronavirus ward in a Baghdad hospital, killing more than 80 people and injuring dozens. Iraq’s Health Minister Hasan al-Tamimi was suspended for alleged negligence, and resigned Tuesday over the incident.
Faris Al-Lami, assistant professor of community medicine at the University of Baghdad, said the government is widely viewed as corrupt and that its actions since the start of the pandemic only deepened the public’s mistrust.
He cited certain early practices, such as using security forces to take patients from their homes as if they were criminals, and holding up the burials of those who died of the virus for several weeks.
Al-Lami also pointed to what he said are current problematic policies. For example, he said high-risk patients, such as those with chronic or immunodeficiency diseases, have to wait inside hospitals to get their shots, putting them at high risk of infection. Meanwhile, people with personal connections can get them easily.
He said it’s a positive development when the vaccination of a political or religious figure encourages people to get their shots. “But the ideology that is based upon blindly following anyone’s decision is a disaster in itself,” he said.
Iraq received 336,000 new doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in late March and Iraqis above the age of 18 are qualified to get the jab. Last month, the first shipment of Pfizer doses arrived in the country, with 49,000 shots.
“All the vaccines that arrived in Iraq are safe and effective … but until this moment, there are some citizens who are afraid of taking the vaccine as a result of malicious rumors,” said Ruba Hassan, a Health Ministry official.
The Health Ministry has introduced measures to push Iraqis to get the shots. They include travel restrictions for those unable to produce a vaccination card and dismissals of employees at shops, malls and restaurants. While the measures have led more people to seek out vaccinations, they have also confused and angered a still largely reticent public.
Restaurant owners said they were blindsided by the measures, uncertain if it meant they would face closure if they refused them.
“There is no clear law to follow,” said Rami Amir, 30, who owns a fast food restaurant in Baghdad. “I don’t want all my staff to be vaccinated because they might have severe side effects or complications,” he said, echoing widespread skepticism.
Omer Mohammed, another restaurant owner, said applicants for a new job at his eatery dropped out when he said vaccination cards were a necessary prerequisite.
Medical professionals were prioritized to receive the vaccine and were able to pre-register in January when Iraq received its first shipment of 50,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.
When recent medical school graduate Mohammed al-Sudani, 24, went to get vaccinated this month he said the process was “bittersweet.” He showed up with no previous registration for the AstraZeneca vaccine. He didn’t need it. There was barely anyone there.
The next week he brought two of his aunts to the same center. There were only two other people in the waiting room.
“The nurse came in and asked them to call their relatives and friends to come to raise the number to at least 10 people because the jabs inside the vaccine kits were only valid for 6 hours,” he said.
It was a different scene in hospitals that carry Pfizer shots. Tabark Rashad, 27, headed to Baghdad’s al-Kindi hospital last week. The waiting room was crowded with dozens of people, sparking infection concerns.
“I went to protect myself against COVID-19, not get it in this room,” she said. “It was chaos.”
A follower of Muqtada al-Sadr
A follower of populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr holds a picture of him while receiving a dose of the Chinese Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine at a clinic in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 4, 2021. Iraq’s vaccine rollout had been faltering for weeks. Apathy, fear and rumors kept many from getting vaccinated despite a serious surge in coronavirus infections and calls by the government for people to register for shots. It took al-Sadr’s public endorsement of vaccinations — and images of him getting the shot — to turn things around. Hadi Mizban/AP Photo