Their concerns were reinforced by news on Sunday that the Vatican ambassador to Iraq, the main person on the trip who allegedly escorted Francis to all of his appointments, has tested positive for COVID-19 and has self-isolated.
In an email to The Associated Press, the embassy said Archbishop Mitja Leskovar’s symptoms were mild and he was continuing to prepare for Francis’ visit.
Beyond his case, experts note that wars, economic crises and the exodus of Iraqi professionals have devastated the country’s hospital system, while studies show that most new COVID-19 infections in Iraq are the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Dr Navid Madani, virologist and founding director of the Center for Science Health Education in the Middle East and North Africa at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard. Medical School.
Madani, of Iranian descent, co-wrote an article in The Lancet last year on the region’s uneven response to COVID-19, noting that Iraq, Syria and Yemen were poorly placed to cope, given that they are still grappling with extremist insurgencies and have 40 million. people in need of humanitarian assistance.
In a telephone interview, Madani said the Middle Easterners are known for their hospitality and warned that the enthusiasm of Iraqis to welcome a peacemaker like Francis to a neglected and war-torn part of the world could lead to human rights violations. inadvertent virus control measures. .
“This could potentially lead to dangerous or widespread risks,” she said.
Dr Bharat Pankhania, an infectious disease control expert at the University of Exeter College of Medicine, agreed.
“It’s a perfect storm to generate a lot of cases that you won’t be able to cope with,” he said.
Organizers promise to enforce mask warrants, social distancing and crowd limits, as well as the possibility of increasing testing sites, two Iraqi government officials said.
Health care protocols are “essential but can be managed,” a government official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.
And the Vatican has taken its own precautions, with the 84-year-old Pope, his entourage of 20 Vatican members and the 70 journalists on the papal plane all vaccinated.
But Iraqis who gather in the north, center and south of the country to attend Francis’ internal and external masses, hear his speeches and participate in his prayer meetings are not vaccinated.
And this, according to scientists, is the problem.
“We are in the midst of a global pandemic. And it’s important to get the right messages out, ”Pankhania said. “The correct messages are: the less interaction with other human beings, the better.”
He questioned the optics of inoculating the Vatican delegation when the Iraqis are not, and noted that the Iraqis would only take such risks to get to these events because the Pope was there .
In words to Vatican officials and the media, he said: “You are all protected against serious illness. So if you are infected you are not going to die. But people who come to you can get infected and can die. “
“Is it wise in these circumstances for you to present yourself?” And because you introduce yourself, do people come to you and get infected? ” He asked.
The World Health Organization was diplomatic when asked about the wisdom of a papal trip to Iraq, saying countries should weigh the risk of an event versus the infectious situation and then decide if it should be postponed.
“It’s about managing that risk,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical officer on COVID-19. “It’s about looking at the epidemiological situation in the country and then making sure that if this event is to take place, it can proceed as safely as possible.”
Francis said he intended to go even though most Iraqis have to watch it on TV to avoid infection. The important thing, he told the Catholic News Service, is “that they will see that the Pope is there in their country”.
Francois has often called for a fair distribution of vaccines and adherence to government health measures, although he tends not to wear a face mask. For months, Francis avoided public Vatican hearings, even socially distant ones, to limit the risk of contagion.
Dr Michael Head, senior researcher in global health at the University of Southampton School of Medicine, said the number of new daily cases in Iraq “is increasing dramatically right now”, with the Department of Health reporting around 4,000 per day. day, near the height of its first wave in September.
Head said that for any travel to Iraq, infection control practices should be in place, including wearing masks, hand washing, social distancing and good ventilation in indoor spaces.
“I hope we will see proactive infection control approaches in place during the Pope’s visit to Baghdad,” he said.
The Iraqi government imposed a modified lockdown and curfew in mid-February amid a new surge in cases, closing schools and mosques and leaving restaurants and cafes open only for take-out. But the government decided not to conduct a complete shutdown due to the difficulty of enforcing it and its financial impact on Iraq’s battered economy, Iraqi officials told the PA.
Many Iraqis remain lax in the use of masks and some doubt the severity of the virus.
Madani, the Harvard virologist, urged tour operators to let science and data guide their decision-making.
A decision to reschedule or postpone the papal trip, or move it to a virtual format, “would have a huge impact from a world leadership perspective” because “it would mean putting the safety of the Iraqi public first,” a- she declared.