COVID-19 in Iraq

Working under the coronavirus curfew in Baghdad

Coronavirus is also spreading in Iraq. This didn't stop hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travelling to a Shia shrine, however. The nation's health system has already conceded it cannot cope with the epidemic. Birgit Svensson reports from Baghdad

Curfew in Baghdad. Since mid-March, restaurants, bars, cafes and fast food outlets have been closed, events cancelled and any gatherings prohibited. But people are ignoring these instructions. On Friday 20 March up to 400,000 pilgrims gathered in northern Baghdad where the seventh of the Twelver Shia imams lies buried.

Musa al-Kadhim is believed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Every year at this time, the faithful remember his death in the year 745. Shia Muslims from all over the world travel to Kadhimiya, the district in the Iraqi capital that bears his name. Even this year, in the shadow of the coronavirus.

The pilgrimage lasts several days. "If Allah wants us to die, then we'll die," comes the pilgrims' response to the question of why they are contravening official measures and putting their lives on the line in such a way. In the years 2005 and 2010, mass panics during this very pilgrimage resulted in the deaths of up to 1,000 people on both occasions. Now, in response to the coronavirus, the Iraqi government deployed soldiers to prevent people from visiting the shrine. In spite of this, the authorities are expecting the number of infections to accelerate in the coming days.

ʺWe are afraid of anything newʺ

The Iraqis are accustomed to distressing situations. Anyone interested in learning survival techniques should come to Baghdad. Three wars, an economic embargo, resistance to American and British occupiers, terror by al-Qaida and IS: survived it all, got through it all, with plenty of wounds and scars and the shedding of much blood. But this time, things are different. The virus that infects the lungs has brought about a new situation that Iraqis have not experienced before.

"Iraq is a conservative society," says Amal Ibrahim, "we are afraid of anything new." And indeed Covid-19, which is also running rampant here, is creating an atmosphere that is unusual for Iraq.

On the one hand, in Baghdad we are seeing many people on the streets with face masks, hurriedly running errands and quickly disappearing back into their homes. Schools, nurseries and universities have been closed for two weeks. Public service employees – a category covering most Iraqi workers – are only working at 50 percent capacity.

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