BAGHDAD: An Iraqi shopkeeper arranges facemasks at a stall on a market street yesterday. - AFP

BAGHDAD: War-scarred Iraq is seeing thousands of new COVID cases a day but few people wear facemasks and even fewer are vaccinated, sparking fears of an "epidemiological catastrophe". Healthcare workers say they are battling not just the pandemic but also a widespread skepticism over vaccines, borne of misinformation and public mistrust in the state.

"I don't like the vaccine or the mask," said Nehad Sabbah, 36, speaking on a Baghdad street and reflecting a widely held view. "I'm not afraid of getting sick." Even as she acknowledged the risk of catching the novel coronavirus that is now infecting some 8,000 people a day in Iraq, she stressed that "I'm not going to take the vaccine".

Since the vaccine rollout began in March, Iraqi health authorities have fully inoculated only around one percent of the country's roughly 40 million people. Iraq - where the oil-reliant economy is still recovering from decades of war and insurgency and many people live in poverty - has recorded over 1.4 million COVID cases and more than 17,000 deaths.

But across the capital, mask-wearing has become lax and restrictions have loosened considerably. Sarmad Al-Qarlousi, who heads Baghdad's Al-Kindi Hospital, was insistent that, unless far more citizens get jabbed, the country is spiraling toward "an epidemiological catastrophe". "We have entered the third wave and we have to be ready," he said. "We are trying to control the disaster, and we are advising people to take the vaccine."

The hospital's 54 intensive care unit beds have been fully occupied all year, and there is a long waiting list. In one of the air-conditioned rooms of the COVID isolation ward, a woman in her late twenties was gasping for air as a ventilator aided her ravaged lungs. "She has been here for 15 days," said her 20-year-old sister Roqayya Abdel-Moutaleb as she gently stroked her arm. "We come regularly to support her."

She has been taking turns with her mother to tend to her sister, while her nieces and nephews - prevented from visiting the hospital for fear of contracting the virus - fret over their mother. Asked about her feelings about the vaccine, Abdel-Moutaleb however retorted firmly that "it's too risky... this vaccine isn't safe".

The UN World Health Organization says that the "approved COVID-19 vaccines provide a high degree of protection against getting seriously ill and dying from the disease". It also says on its website that they "are safe for most people 18 years and older, including those with pre-existing conditions of any kind, including auto-immune disorders".

Iraqi health ministry spokesman Saif Al-Badr blamed the general hesitation to get inoculated on a "misinformation campaign which preceded the arrival of the vaccine". Even doctors have been complicit in spreading false news. Hamid Al-Lami, a general practitioner, was arrested and banned from practicing medicine in May after asserting that the virus was curable with natural herbs. Another rumor about vaccines which spread widely was the unfounded claim that they cause infertility.

Populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, with millions of ardent followers, initially lambasted US-manufactured vaccines but, after he received his first jab in April, registrations for the vaccine rose significantly. Skepticism and apathy remain especially rife amid younger Iraqis, the 60 percent of the population aged under 25. One of two young men smoking cigarettes in an upmarket Baghdad district told AFP that "we don't trust the government or the types of vaccines it has brought".

Iraq has so far ordered 18 million doses of various vaccines, including AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech. The health ministry's Badr told AFP that "the situation so far is under control despite the obvious increase in cases". He also said no cases of the highly contagious Delta variant had been recorded so far, even as it has flared in neighboring Iran and many other parts of the world.

Kholoud Al-Sarraf, dean of the pharmacology faculty at Baghdad's Al-Esraa University, was not so optimistic and advocated a two-week lockdown to stem the rising caseload. She also urged a stepped up effort to convince Iraqis to get vaccinated. "People are scared," she said. "They say they would rather catch corona, which would give them natural immunity. That's the general mindset." - AFP