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Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq is ‘not a good idea,’ some health experts say

Priest holds Vatican flag in Baghdad
A priest holds the flag of the Vatican as he walks by a poster in Baghdad of Pope Francis ahead of the the pontiff’s visit to Iraq.
(Hadi Mizban / Associated Press)

Infectious-disease experts are expressing concern about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Iraq, given a sharp rise in the country’s coronavirus infections there, its fragile healthcare system and the inevitability of Iraqis crowding to see him.

No one wants to tell Francis to cancel, and the Iraqi government has every interest in showing off its relative stability by welcoming the first pope to visit the birthplace of Abraham. The March 5-8 trip is expected to provide a sorely needed spiritual boost to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians while furthering the Vatican’s bridge-building efforts with the Muslim world.

But from an epidemiological standpoint, as well as the public health message it sends, a papal trip to Iraq amid a pandemic is not advisable, health experts say.

Their concerns were reinforced with the news Sunday that the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq, the main point person for the trip who would have escorted Francis to all his appointments, tested positive for the coronavirus and was self-isolating.

In an email to the Associated Press, the Vatican Embassy said Archbishop Mitja Leskovar’s symptoms were mild and that he was continuing to prepare for the pontifical visit.

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Besides Leskovar’s case, experts note that wars, economic crises and an exodus of Iraqi professionals have devastated the country’s hospital system, while studies show most of Iraq’s new coronavirus infections are of the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain.

Hussam Matti knelt to the ground, grabbed two fistfuls of brown-gray sand and poured it over his head.

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Dr. Navid Madani, a virologist and founding director of the Center for Science Health Education in the Middle East and North Africa at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The Iranian-born Madani was co-author of an article in the medical journal 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 struggling with extremist insurgencies and have 40 million people who need humanitarian aid.

In a telephone interview, Madani said Middle Easterners are known for their hospitality, and cautioned that the enthusiasm among Iraqis in welcoming a peacemaker like Francis to a neglected, war-torn part of the world might lead to inadvertent violations of coronavirus-control measures.

“This could potentially lead to unsafe or super-spreading risks,” she said.

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Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious-disease control expert at the University of Exeter College of Medicine, concurred.

“It’s a perfect storm for generating lots of cases which you won’t be able to deal with,” he said.

Organizers promise to enforce mask mandates, social distancing and crowd limits, as well as possibly increasing testing sites, two Iraqi government officials said.

The healthcare protocols are “critical but can be managed,” one government official told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Pope Francis changes church law to allow women to do more things during Mass, with access to the altar, but reaffirms that they cannot be priests.

And the Vatican has taken its own precautions, with the 84-year-old pope, his 20-member Vatican entourage and the 70-plus journalists on the papal plane all vaccinated.

But the Iraqis gathering in the north, center and south of the country to attend Francis’ indoor and outdoor Masses, hear his speeches and participate in his prayer meetings are not vaccinated. That, scientists say, is the problem.

“We are in the middle of a global pandemic. And it is important to get the correct messages out,” Pankhania said. “The correct messages are: The less interactions with fellow human beings, the better.”

He questioned the optics of the Vatican delegation being inoculated while the Iraqis are not. “You are all protected from severe disease, so if you get infected, you’re not going to die,” he said, addressing the Vatican delegation rhetorically. “But the people coming to see you may get infected and may die.”

Francis has said he intends to go even if most Iraqis have to watch him on television to avoid infection. The important thing, he told Catholic News Service, is that “they will see that the pope is there in their country.”

Francis has frequently called for an equitable distribution of vaccines and respect for government health measures, though he tends to not wear face masks. To limit the chance of contagion, Francis for months has eschewed even socially distanced public audiences at the Vatican.

Dr. Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine, said the number of new daily cases in Iraq is “increasing significantly at the moment,” with the Health Ministry reporting around 4,000 a day, close to the height of its first wave in September.

Head said that, for any trip to Iraq, there must be infection-control practices in force, including mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing and good ventilation in indoor spaces.

Pope Francis left Egypt charmed after a high-stakes, two-day visit during which he embraced Muslim leaders, challenged religious extremists and waved to fans from a blue Fiat instead of his armored popemobile.

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 takeout. But the government decided against a full shutdown because of the difficulty of enforcing it and the financial impact on Iraq’s battered economy, the Iraqi officials told the AP.

Many Iraqis remain lax about using masks, and some doubt the severity of the virus.

Madani, the Harvard virologist, urged trip organizers 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 “be quite impactful from a global leadership standpoint” because “it would signal prioritizing the safety of Iraq’s public,” she said.


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