The cleric’s intervention prompted hundreds of his followers to line hospital corridors in search of their own vaccinations — and the visibility of even this small increase underscored just how troubled Iraq’s vaccination effort has become.
“I’d decided not to take the vaccine after hearing so many rumors about how it might change my genetics. But when I saw our commander getting it, I realized I’d been wrong,” said Fadhil Abbas, sitting at home in Baghdad’s Sadr City, a hub of support for the cleric.
Ghayeb al-Amiri, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s health committee, said more than 610,000 people had registered to schedule vaccination appointments within 30 minutes of Sadr’s photograph appearing on social media.
In Sadr City, 40-year-old bus driver Abbas said the image of Sadr being vaccinated had inspired him to seek his own injection in a nearby clinic. “If Sadr says the vaccine is good, then the vaccine is good,” he said.
Iraq’s government has announced a 10-day lockdown as it struggles to slow its coronavirus outbreak. The country passed 1 million infections last month and is recording almost 6,000 new cases daily. Only about 1 percent of the country’s 40 million people have been vaccinated, with many Iraqis citing mistrust in medical institutions or in the vaccines themselves.
Against this backdrop, political and religious leaders like Sadr, a storied figure in Iraq, have the potential to persuade where other government messaging has failed. The cleric commands fierce loyalty from tens of thousands of his working-class followers. Many shared photographs this week of their trips to vaccination clinics, some clutching photographs of the black-turbaned cleric alongside Iraq’s highest religious authority, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
In neighborhoods around Sadr City, a packed and sprawling quarter in the capital’s northeast, medics said Sadr’s intervention had made a noticeable difference to their daily vaccination efforts. “Before that Sadr photo, there was a maximum of 40 to 50 patients per day. Now, it’s hundreds turning up like they’re gearing up for battle,” said one medic. “When it’s done, they flash the victory sign. It’s like Sadr is their doctor, not me.”
Iraqi public figures including the president and a host of film stars have also publicized their own visits to vaccination clinics, although none has prompted a similar boost in registrations.
In the years since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the cleric has positioned himself variously as a sectarian militia leader, a revolutionary figure and a nationalist who can unify the country. He agitated for attacks against U.S. troops during the early years of America’s military presence here. Today, he is an aspiring statesman who holds sway over government formation and controls key ministries.
The cleric’s stance on the vaccine has also shifted over time, apparently in line with the political points he is trying to make.
After Iraqi lawmakers voted to oust U.S. troops from Iraq last year, he tweeted that he would not accept any cure produced by the “enemy of God” America.
Sadr’s vaccination photograph, shared April 30, comes as his political bloc prepares for early elections, and as the cleric’s political representatives work behind the scenes to contain the fallout from public anger over a fire that killed at least 82 people in a Baghdad coronavirus ward last month. Iraq’s Health Ministry is dominated by Sadr’s people, and doctors have blamed the deadly blaze on corruption and mismanagement.
Once among the region’s best, Iraq’s hospitals were struggling to cope long before coronavirus engulfed their wards. The health system, researchers say, has been hollowed out by decades of neglect and underfunding as a network of officials, armed groups and middlemen rake in vast sums through corruption in the procurement of drugs, medical equipment and building supplies.
The resulting mistrust in medical institutions has made it hard to convince the Iraqi public to engage with the coronavirus vaccination program, medics say. “It is heartbreaking to watch,” said Ghassan Mohammed, a doctor in Baghdad’s Mohamed al-Jawad Hospital. “If we are not vaccinating, there will be a third wave, a fourth wave and a fifth.”
During peaks in the pandemic here, hospital wards have overflowed with patients as government promises to provide more beds have not materialized. Doctors have worked around-the-clock, their rotations too understaffed for adequate backup.
The longer-term impact of Sadr’s vaccination photo was unclear this week. But supporters who had got the vaccine described the atmosphere as one of triumph and relief. “It was so crowded that they had to bring in more staff,” said Abbas, the taxi driver, adding that he had experienced no side effects and was now waiting for his second dose.
“I wouldn’t have taken this on a government order. I only trust Sadr.”