Vaccinated Pope Francis heads to Iraq amid covid outbreak

ROME — When Pope Francis embarks this week on his first trip abroad since the pandemic began, everybody on board, from priests to journalists, will be vaccinated. The plane will be packed. Aside from mask-wearing, it will look like any other papal voyage.

But then Francis will arrive in Iraq — where the coronavirus is raging.

Francis’s trip gives some hope that global figures, once they are armed with the mighty power of inoculation, might be able to travel again widely.

But some health experts say that in venturing to a country with far fewer resources to manage the pandemic, the pope’s March 5-8 trip is nonetheless risky. It could spur crowds — and increase transmission of the virus — in a nation that is nominally under curfew, has a brittle health system and where only a minimal batch of Chinese-made vaccine doses have arrived.

Vatican-watchers had been speculating for weeks that the pope’s plans might be scrapped. But Francis, 84, who last year complained of feeling “caged” under lockdown, has indicated he feels the need to go ahead, continuing his outreach to the Muslim world and providing symbolic support for Iraq’s tiny Christian minority. Iraq’s caretaker government also wants the trip to happen, viewing it as a potentially celebratory moment for a wounded and fractured country.

“A lot of people want to see the pope,” said Raghad Al-Suhail, a professor of virology and immunology at the University of Baghdad. “But we are all worried. Even here, people are saying, how is the pope coming to visit at this time? The country is not really well-prepared for it.”

The challenges to the trip go beyond the virus, and include possible security threats, after several recent rocket attacks and a January double-suicide bombing. The U.S.-led military coalition said Wednesday that it was investigating a fresh barrage of rocket attacks on a facility housing its personnel. Such attacks have routinely been claimed by or blamed on Iran-backed militias. Separately, the Islamic State continues to launch small-scale attacks throughout Iraq’s peripheries as it tries to maintain its foothold in Iraq.

Meantime, the government is in crisis. The oil-dependent economy has nosedived, and state coffers are bare. Iran-backed militia groups have resumed attacks on U.S. interests. Last week, security forces clashed with protesters in the southern city of Nasiriyah — where the pope is due to fly Saturday — killing at least five and wounding scores more.

The Vatican, in a news conference Tuesday, laid out a vision for how a trip might unfold safely, at least with respect to the coronavirus. The Holy See’s spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said Francis would travel in a covered car, not one with an open-air top, to discourage crowds as he moves through Baghdad and other cities. Bruni said events would be held with only a “few hundred people,” at a distance, and that most Iraqis could simply follow on TV.

“All the precautions have been taken from a health point of view,” Bruni said.

But Iraq has been relaxed, until now, about enforcement of mask-wearing and social distancing rules.

Days ago, the Vatican’s envoy to Iraq, who was set to be a part of the pope’s on-the-ground delegation, reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus.

In an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, retired Pope Benedict XVI expressed some concern about the trip, calling it important but “dangerous” because of security reasons and the coronavirus.

“I will accompany Francis with my prayer,” Benedict said.

Starting with John Paul II, popes have long had their eyes on Iraq — but no pontiff has ever gone. Francis had been traveling at a brisk pace until the pandemic, often venturing to countries, such as Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, on the fringes of the Catholic empire. But last year was the first without international papal travel since 1978.

Muhamed Almaliky, an Iraqi-American physician and a fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, said the pope was justified in choosing to travel now to Iraq.

“It signals something in the direction of the recovery — that at least the vaccinated, the lucky vaccinated people, are confident enough to go around the world,” Almaliky said.

He added that even had Francis waited longer, Iraq might not become safer.

“There is no point at which Iraq will be stable and healthy, not even in three years,” Almaliky said. “He is a man who is aging and becoming frail. If he waits, the trip may never happen. Because Iraq will be the last country to recover from covid.”

Many of Iraq’s problems boil down to poor governance and corruption, researchers say, issues that will to a large extent be swept under the rug as the country welcomes the pope. Roads have been cleaned. Parts of the Mesopotamian site of Ur, where Francis will hold an interreligious prayer service Saturday, have been renovated, in a marked departure from the years of chronic underfunding that have left authorities unable to repair preexisting damage.

What will be harder to obscure is the extent to which Iraq’s coronavirus crisis is worsening. Cases are spiking at more than 4,500 new infections a day, and government promises to purchase millions of vaccine doses have not been met. Instead, the Chinese government announced Sunday that it would be donating the country’s first 50,000 doses.

Even when more supply becomes available, it is unclear how extensive the take up will be. Long-standing mistrust of health authorities and the medical system, combined with widespread misconceptions about how the virus spreads, have left many in Iraq suspicious of coronavirus vaccines. According to a recent World Bank survey, some 45 percent of people said they were not sure whether they would sign up.

Although Iraqi law mandates mask-wearing in public, such precautions are often abandoned in indoor cafes and government ministries alike. The country goes into full lockdown on weekends, but not until 8 p.m. on weekdays. On Tuesday, a senior official in the Health Ministry, Riad al-Halfi, said the authority was recommending a two-week lockdown to bring the coronavirus under control.

“The [anti-covid] rules have not been followed in Iraq, period,” said Ali Mokdad, the director of Middle Eastern Initiatives and a professor of global health at the University of Washington. “The question is the following: When the pope arrives, will Iraqis come wearing a mask? My guess is, yes. They want to show the world they can abide by the rules and do what it takes for a successful visit.”

Loveluck reported from London. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.

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