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The whiplash of covering the pope’s Iraq trip: A year of tight covid rules in Italy, then 72 hours of crowds

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Irbil, Iraq, on March 7, 2021. (Chris Mcgrath/Getty Images)

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — By almost every measurement, Pope Francis's trip to Iraq was stunning. He went to a country no pope had visited before, at a time when few other global figures were traveling. He led prayer in the very place where, less than seven years earlier, the Islamic State's leader had proclaimed a caliphate that would "conquer Rome." The crowds were adoring, ululating, sometimes crying. The theater was unbeatable.

And yet, amid all this, I kept thinking about the coronavirus.

In a way, I didn’t want to keep dwelling on it — feeling like a Cassandra, seeing the potential dark side of a rare moment of jubilation in a country intimately acquainted with destruction and heartbreak.

But almost everywhere Francis went, there were crowds. Big crowds of unvaccinated people, shoulder to shoulder. Francis’s outdoor Mass in Irbil, capital of the semiautonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, had nearly the attendance of the Super Bowl, but in a dramatically smaller stadium; few were wearing masks. Most startling was an indoor Mass on Saturday night in Baghdad, in a packed church with people singing and almost no ventilation. I was a pool reporter for that service; it felt like standing in a coronavirus nuclear reactor.

But it also seemed as though nobody around me was worried. People were rejoicing in the lottery win of having Francis in their church.

Pope Francis held a historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric in the holy city of Najaf on March 6 and visited the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham. (Video: Reuters)

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It was moments like those that caused such a whiplash. For 12 months, I’d been in full-on pandemic mode, witnessing the virus’s wrath in one of the ­hardest-hit countries, focusing on it constantly, interviewing its victims, as well as doctors who said only wars could produce similar horrors. Like for so many others living in Italy, some mix of rules and best practices had come to redefine my life. I wore a mask any time I stepped out. I never ate indoors at restaurants. I avoided gatherings. I hadn’t been on a plane since February 2020 — and I’d had no plans to get on one until the Vatican announced the pope was going to Iraq.

In the run-up to the trip, the Vatican had offered all traveling journalists — more than 70 of us — two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. At first, that had seemed like a fortuitous gift from one of the few nations with an abundance of vaccines. But as the trip started up, I realized: We’d been vaccinated because we were about to let go of many of the pandemic rules.

In Iraq, we were reporting among tight crowds. We were sharing space on media buses. We took six plane rides in 72 hours, eating meal after meal from plastic wrap. Just to prove that all caution was out, there was even a hotel dinner buffet. After a day or two — in a country where mask-wearing was far less common — I could feel my own guard drop. I swapped out a heavy-duty FFP2 mask for a looser, more comfortable one. I started getting in elevators with three or four people. I began to drop long-practiced safety behaviors, feeling as though it was already too late, as though the virus had already jumped the gates and entered the castle. Only one thing was keeping me calm: the vaccine.

That’s why my thoughts kept returning to the people who didn’t have the same protection — like the Catholics in the pews at that Saturday evening Mass in Baghdad. I wondered: Who among the crowd might be sick in a couple of days? Could even a Mass lead to death?

Why the pope’s visit matters for Iraq’s Christians

On the flight back to Rome on Monday, I asked the pope how he’d weighed the risks of the trip, and whether he worried about the death of somebody who’d come to see him. But the pontiff didn’t directly answer the question. He said he’d thought deeply about the trip in advance, “prayed a lot over this.” He indicated he’d wrestled with what to do.

He said he believed God would look out for Iraqis who might have been exposed to the virus.

“I made the decision,” Francis said, “but after prayer and knowing the risks.”

I’ve been weighing it, too. Surely there are things more important than the coronavirus, and the pope clearly feels as much. He was able to step into a broken, hurting part of the world and show people living there that they hadn’t been forgotten. He was able to signal to Christians who had fled that they might be able to return home. He made inroads with Shiite Muslims and told Iraqis, again and again, to coexist peacefully and forgive. The pope had called his visit to Iraq a “duty,” and the trip might even help make Iraq a better place.

But on the other hand, Iraqis were being endangered. They were coming to see the pope, at events planned by the church, in crowds far denser than the Vatican has allowed in its own backyard. Meanwhile, Iraq is recording several thousand new coronavirus cases a day — significant in a place that does so little testing. New, more transmissible variants appear to be spreading. The nation had been in a loosely enforced lockdown, banning religious services, before the pope arrived. A vaccination campaign has barely gotten off the ground.

Monday morning, our last in Baghdad, started with a breakfast buffet at the hotel. But soon, all the coronavirus realities came rushing back. It’s still unclear how readily somebody who has been vaccinated can transmit the virus. So I returned not to my apartment, but to an Airbnb, to quarantine away from my family for a few days, before getting tested.

Getting into a taxi at Rome’s airport, I put on my FFP2 mask.

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