Their concerns were heightened by the news on Sunday that the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq, the protagonist of the trip who would have escorted Francis to all his appointments, tested positive for COVID-19 and was self-isolating.
In an email to the Associated Press, the embassy said Archbishop Mitja Leskovar’s symptoms were mild and that he continued to prepare for Francis’ visit.
In addition to his case, experts note that wars, economic crises and an exodus of Iraqi professionals have destroyed the country’s hospital system, while studies show that most of Iraq̵
“I just do not think it is 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 Harvard Medical Schools Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Iranian-born Madani co-authored an article in The Lancet last year on the region’s uneven response to COVID-19, noting that Iraq, Syria and Yemen were at a disadvantage as they continue to fight extremist insurgency and have 40 million people in need of humanitarian aid.
In a telephone interview, Madani said the Middle East was known for its hospitality, warning that Iraqis’ enthusiasm for welcoming a peacemaker like Francis to a neglected, war-torn part of the world could lead to unintentional violations of virus control measures. .
“This could potentially lead to uncertain or super-spread 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 can’t handle,” he said.
Organizers promise to enforce mask mandates, social distancing and population limits, as well as the possibility of increased test sites, two Iraqi officials said.
The health care protocols are “critical but manageable,” 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 20-member Vatican entourage and the 70-plus journalists at the papal level all vaccinated.
But the Iraqis who gather in the north, center and south of the country to attend Francis’ indoor and outdoor masses, hear his speeches and attend his prayer meetings have not been vaccinated.
And that, researchers say, is the problem.
“We are in the middle of a global pandemic. And it is important to get the right messages out, ”said Pankhania. “The correct messages are: the fewer interactions with fellow human beings, the better.”
He questioned the optics of the Vatican delegation being grafted while the Iraqis are not, noting that Iraqis would only take such risks to go to these events because the pope was there.
Speaking to Vatican officials and the media, he said: “You are all protected from serious illness. So if you get infected, you will not die. But the people who come to see you can get infected and can die. ”
“Is it wise for you to just show up? And because you show up, people come up to see you and they get infected? ” he asked.
The World Health Organization was diplomatic when asked about the wisdom of a papal trip to Iraq, saying countries should assess the risk of an event against the infection situation and then decide whether to postpone it.
“It’s about managing that risk,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical director at COVID-19. “It is about looking at the epidemiological situation in the country and then making sure that if this event is to take place, that it can take place as safely as possible.”
Francis has said he intends to leave, although most Iraqis have to watch him on television to avoid infection. The important thing, he told the Catholic News Service, is “they want to see the pope there in their country.”
Francis has often called for an equitable distribution of vaccines and respect for government health measures, even though he tends not to wear face masks. Francis has for several months avoided even a socially distant public audience in the Vatican to limit the risk of infection.
Dr. Michael Head, senior researcher in global health at the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine, said the number of new daily cases in Iraq is “rising sharply at the moment”, with the Ministry of Health reporting around 4,000 a day close to the height of its first wave in September.
Head said for any trip to Iraq, there must be infection control practices in place, including wearing masks, washbasins, social distance and good ventilation in indoor spaces.
“Hopefully, we will see proactive approaches to infection control in place during the Pope’s visit to Baghdad,” he said.
The Iraqi government introduced a change of closure and curfew in mid-February amid a new rise in cases, closing schools and mosques, leaving restaurants and cafes open only for pick-up. But the government decided against full closure because of the difficulties in enforcing it and the economic impact on Iraq’s battered economy, Iraqi officials told the AP.
Many Iraqis are still reluctant to wear masks, and some doubt the severity of the virus.
Madani, a Harvard virologist, urged tour operators to let science and data guide their decision-making.
A decision to reschedule or postpone the papacy or move it to a virtual format would be “very effective from a global leadership standpoint” because “it would signal priority for security for the Iraqi public,” she said.