When Iraqi movie stars and political leaders posted videos of themselves receiving the Covid-19 vaccine in an effort to encourage vaccines, most Iraqis ignored them. But officials say Shi’ite cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s decision to bare his arm for an injection last week has persuaded thousands of people to follow suit.
Iraq received its first shipment of coronavirus vaccine in March, but Iraqis who are wary of any government initiative have been reluctant to sign. Just over 400,000 people have been vaccinated, about 1 percent of the country’s population of roughly 40 million. Iraq has received around 600,000 doses of vaccines.
Sadr, who has millions of followers, was shown on video from Najaf city at a vaccination clinic, wearing a surgical mask and his black turban. He pulled down the right sleeve of his robe and shirt to bare his upper arm for the jab.
Health officials said the video had encouraged thousands of people to go to vaccination centers, many of them in southern Iraq, where Sadr has strong support. In Najaf, before this week, a few hundred vaccinations a day were being administered throughout the province. That number rose to nearly 2,000 injections on Monday, and the province began running out of doses on Tuesday.
Some of those who showed up at vaccination clinics in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood had framed photos of the cleric.
Iraq has recorded more than one million coronavirus cases and 15,640 deaths. Many Iraqis have avoided vaccines amid widespread and unproven rumors that they could cause birth defects or sterility. Iraqis have little faith in government institutions, which have been weakened by years of corruption and mismanagement.
Many poorly equipped hospitals have also been overcrowded during the pandemic.
At a Baghdad hospital last month, an exploding oxygen canister fire ripped through an isolation room with no smoke detectors and no working sprinkler system. A Health Ministry official said the death toll had since risen to more than 100.
To try to stop the rise in coronavirus cases, the Iraqi government is imposing a 10-day lockdown starting next week, when the holy month of Ramadan ends. Shopping centers, stores and restaurants will be closed and public gatherings will be prohibited.
The government has also directed government institutions to restrict access only to those who can show a vaccination card or a negative coronavirus test.