Iraqis remain sceptical of vaccines as Covid cases rise

Misinformation and distrust are thought to be behind low vaccine acceptance in the country

Iraqis browse protective items such as hand sanitisers and masks at a stall in a market street in the capital Baghdad on July 12. AFP
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War-scarred Iraq is reporting thousands of new Covid cases a day, but few people wear face masks and even fewer are vaccinated, sparking fears of an "epidemiological catastrophe".

Healthcare workers say they are battling widespread scepticism about vaccines, caused by misinformation and public mistrust in the state.

"I don't like the vaccine or the mask," said Nehad Sabbah, 36, speaking on a Baghdad street. "I'm not afraid of getting sick."

She acknowledged the risk of catching the coronavirus that is now infecting about 8,000 people a day in Iraq, but insisted: "I'm not going to take the vaccine".

Since the vaccine programme began in March, Iraqi health authorities have fully inoculated only about 1 per cent of the country's 40 million people.

Iraq, whose oil-reliant economy is still recovering from decades of war and insurgency, and where many people live in poverty, has recorded more than 1.4 million Covid cases and 17,000 deaths.

But across the capital, people are lax with wearing masks and restrictions have loosened considerably.

Sarmad Al Qarlousi, head of Baghdad's Al Kindi Hospital, was insistent that, unless far more citizens are vaccinated, the country is moving towards catastrophe.

"We have entered the third wave and we have to be ready," Dr Al Qarlousi said. "We are trying to control the disaster and we are advising people to take the vaccine."

The hospital's 54 intensive-care unit beds have been fully occupied all year and there is a long waiting list.

In one of the air-conditioned rooms of the Covid-19 isolation ward, a woman in her late twenties was gasping for air with the help of a ventilator.

"She has been here for 15 days," said her sister, Roqayya Abdel-Moutaleb, 20, as she gently stroked her arm. "We come regularly to support her."

She has been taking turns with her mother to tend to her sister, while her nieces and nephews, prevented from visiting the hospital for fear of contracting the virus, fret over their mother.

Asked about the vaccine, Ms Abdel-Moutaleb says: "It's too risky ... this vaccine isn't safe."

The UN World Health Organisation says that the "approved Covid-19 vaccines provide a high degree of protection against getting seriously ill and dying from the disease".

It says on its website that the vaccines "are safe for most people 18 years and older, including those with pre-existing conditions of any kind, including auto-immune disorders".

Iraqi Health Ministry spokesman Saif Al Badr blamed the hesitation to be inoculated on a "misinformation campaign which preceded the arrival of the vaccine".

Even doctors have been complicit in spreading false news.

Hamid Al Lami, a general practitioner, was arrested and banned from practising medicine in May after asserting that the virus was curable with natural herbs.

Another widely spread rumour about vaccines was the unfounded claim that they caused infertility.

Populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who has millions of followers, initially criticised US-made vaccines but, after he received his first shot in April, registrations for the drugs rose significantly.

Scepticism and apathy remain especially rife amid younger Iraqis, the 60 per cent of the population aged under 25.

One of two young men smoking cigarettes in an upmarket Baghdad district told AFP that: "We don't trust the government or the types of vaccines it has brought."

Iraq has so far ordered 18 million doses of various vaccines, including those developed by AstraZeneca, and Pfizer and BioNTech.

"The situation so far is under control despite the obvious increase in cases," Mr Al Badr told AFP.

He said no cases of the highly contagious Delta variant had been recorded so far, even as it flared in neighbouring Iran and many other parts of the world.

Kholoud Al Sarraf, dean of the pharmacology faculty at Baghdad's Al Esraa University, was not so optimistic and advocated a two-week lockdown to stem the rising caseload.

Dr Al Sarraf also urged increased efforts to convince Iraqis to be vaccinated.

"People are scared," she said. "They say they would rather catch corona, which would give them natural immunity. That's the general mindset."

Updated: July 12, 2021, 9:15 PM