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.

Anyone unable to work at home is coming to work every other day. Amal Ibrahim, a mother of four, has been working at home for a week. Her situation is the same as mothers in Germany. Her youngest 11-year-old daughter thinks it's great that her Mum is at home and asks every five minutes if she has time or whether she can explain something to her. So, very little chance of Amal getting any proper work done.

Corona crisis an excuse for repression

On the other hand, an increasing number of people don't believe what their government is telling them. They perceive the scenario as just another way for leaders to repress the people and deprive them of their liberties. Twelve years ago, when the government imposed a curfew lasting months during the civil war, the threat was visible. Bombs were going off, explosives were an omnipresent threat, there were corpses on the pavements. Now, the danger is invisible.

Besides, demonstrators are dying almost every day, shot by Shia militias on Tahrir Square; protesters are being kidnapped and detained for days and even tortured to extract confessions and information. "This makes it difficult to accept that now we're being told to stay at home because of a virus," says Maha, speaking from a protest tent on Baghdad's Tahrir Square. "It's just a way for them to wipe us out."

Democracy activists on Tahrir Square in Baghdad (photo: Reuters)
"They're just trying to exterminate us": the spread of coronavirus in Iraq is proving a severe blow to the Tahrir Square democracy movement in Baghdad as the government continues to drastically restrict freedom of assembly. According to the Ministry of Health, the number of people infected is almost 200. However, the actual number is likely to be much higher

Iraq has taken drastic measures to prevent the further spread of the virus, although the health ministry in Baghdad claims the official number of infections is less than 200. But the actual number is likely to be considerably higher. The death rate appears more accurate: 20 people have already died of Covid-19. That figure is high relative to infections.


Incapable of effectively combatting the virus


Iraqi Health Minister Jaafar Allawi admits that the nation is not in a position to cope with the new epidemic. If the virus spreads as it has done in other nations, "we don't have the capacity to fight it. We don't have any treatment capabilities," he said. The government has been asked to provide five million U.S. dollars to facilitate counter-measures to combat the coronavirus, but to date no additional funds have been made available.

The country is mired in a serious political crisis. Mass demonstrations against the corrupt political elite have been taking place since October. In December, the Prime Minister and his cabinet resigned. Since then, the search has been on for a new head of government who can mobilise a transitional administration and organise new elections. One has already failed, a second is currently trying to do this. The only way to face the pandemic is isolation and sealing off the country from the outside. The airport has been closed, borders with neighbouring countries are also closed, in Kurdish northern Iraq the curfew has been extended by another week.

But there are apparently exceptions. Two or three borders with Iran have stayed open, although this is where the virus is coming from. The first infected Iraqis had all just returned from Iran. The interdependence of the two nations runs deep.

Exchange occurs not just on a political level, but also on a social and above all religious level. Every year, millions of Iranian pilgrims visit sacred Shia sites in Kerbela and Najaf, as well as the shrine of Musa al-Khadim.

Situation out of control

The irony of the situation: Many Iraqis are receiving medical treatment in Iran, although the health system there is on the brink of collapse. With 1,812 coronavirus deaths, Iran is up there with China and Italy. It is thought that more than 23,000 Iranians have been infected with the virus (as of 23 March). A representative of the health ministry in Tehran who wanted to remain anonymous estimates that around 40 percent of the population of 81 million are affected by Covid-19.


"The situation is out of control," said the source. But instead of cooperating with neighbouring nations in the fight against the virus, Tehran is expressing irritation at the "inaccurate media reporting". In late February, Iranian deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi appeared before the media to calm the population – claiming that everything was under control.

He sat in front of the microphones, his forehead bathed in sweat. He had to cough repeatedly. Shortly afterwards he posted a video statement: "I would like to inform you that I have been infected with the coronavirus, the tests were positive." Since then, the credibility of the Iranian leadership has been severely eroded. In Iraq too. "They brought us the virus" is a view frequently heard on the streets of Baghdad.

Attitudes to neighbouring Iran have been a rollercoaster of emotions in recent months. While the mass protests in early October against the Iraqi political class were also directed at the influence of Iran and America on Iraq, the mood changed when Washington ordered the killing of the Iranian General Qassim Soleimani on Iraqi territory. Thereafter, the anti-Iran slogans disappeared from Tahrir Square. U.S. flags and Israel banners were burned and demonstration marches held calling for the withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq.

When the Iranian-controlled Shia militias took action against protesters in Iraq, shooting several of them dead and threatening their families, and the protest movement within Iran itself was brutally crushed, the picture changed yet again. The import of the coronavirus from Iran looks likely to further exacerbate tensions with Iraq's neighbour to the east.

Birgit Svensson

© 2020

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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