For an Iraqi doctor, the coronavirus vaccine is bitterly sweet


But most of all, she thought of her father and how they had dreamed this day, before the virus entered their home. Remembering him from his hospital chair in Baghdad last week, Amer burst into tears.

In Iraq, the arrival of the coronavirus vaccine in recent weeks has given medical workers hope that a way out of the pandemic is possible. Instead, the number of cases is maximum. The country’s health ministry recorded 7,817 new cases on Thursday, close to record highs, and health officials predict that the daily number will climb as Iraq’s vaccination program and prevention measures such as wearing masks and social exclusion are often followed only loosely, if at all. .

Among the newly vaccinated legions are Iraqi health workers, who say they feel like they are watching from the sidelines amid widespread suspicion of the vaccine.

“People don’t believe in anything,” Amer said. “Even if you give them scientific facts, they don’t trust them.” She was vaccinated at a Baghdad clinic, along with her husband and his parents. Her side of the family did not join them.

Even before countries like Spain and Italy decided to limit the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, citing vague research into potential side effects, more than half of Iraqis interviewed in a recent World Bank study said they were unsure about signing against or against it. for vaccination.

Most Iraqi doses of the vaccine come from AstraZeneca.

Health experts attribute the suspicion in part to widespread public distrust of medical facilities after decades of government failure. More recently, they say, Iraqi authorities have undermined public confidence in the vaccination process and security.

“Delays in receiving the first shipment of vaccines combined with contradictory statements by health officials have undoubtedly undermined public confidence in the health authorities,” said Ali Al-Mawlawi, an independent Iraqi analyst who monitors the introduction of the vaccine.

Iraq’s health care system was on its knees even before the pandemic hit, ripped out by decades of corruption and underfunding. The challenges during this pandemic were felt relentlessly, medical workers say.

The country’s vaccination program began in March, with the arrival of the first 50,000 doses of Sinopharma vaccine donated by China, followed by shipments of 336,000 doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, received through a global initiative supported by the World Health Organization to ensure equitable access.

The numbers are pale in relation to Iraq’s needs: The country’s population is 40 million. Yet a month of vaccination, only 118,000 people were vaccinated.

In the opening days of the program, Iraqis lined up in front of medical facilities in a murmur of chatter. They wondered: Will the shot hurt – or even succeed? What about side effects?

Those lines were reduced to a dropper. Within Baghdad’s Mohamed al-Jawad Medical Center, Ghassan Mohammed, an orthopedist who now oversees the institution’s vaccination program, has only about 10 people a day.

“Honestly, it hurts to see me,” he said. “If only we could vaccinate everyone. It would be the happiest day of my life. “

Amer’s 67-year-old father, Amer Ramadhan, was diagnosed with cancer before the virus arrived in Iraq, and the first cases of covid-19 in Iraqi hospitals coincided with his first chemotherapy examination. Amer, herself an oncologist, could not bear the risk she could take by going to the same medical facilities as those who were infected.

She went back to her books and learned how to do his chemotherapy on her own. He hated staying home, but she insisted.

According to Amer, her father, a retired teacher, was the one who encouraged her to become a doctor. “No matter what happened, he just believed in me,” she recalled. After a late evening night, he would buy her ice cream. When she finished the finals, they celebrated at the Baghdad book market on Mutanabbi Street, scanning the stands as he taught her the history of the avenue.

When the cancer took hold, she forbade visitors to the house and told her father not to see anyone. “He didn’t like it, but he listened well. He did really well, “she said. “All that year I was just trying to save his life.”

He finished treatment in August, and she thought she had succeeded. Weeks later, they realized that a vaccine against the virus might be possible. For Ramadhan, then on antidepressants, as he struggled to cope with his isolation, it was finally a cause for hope.

In October, the WHO said Iraq would be among the first countries in the region to receive vaccines. But none of them came true. As autumn turned into winter, the number of coronavirus cases increased again.

It was then that Ramadhan developed symptoms of the coronavirus.

When he was hospitalized, Amer barely found his bed. “I have been trying to save lives for a whole year. But when my father died, there was nothing I could do for him. I was just watching, ”she said, her voice cracking. “There was no medicine. There was no cure. “

When Amer arrived at Baghdad’s health clinic last week for the first injection of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the corridors and medical facilities across the capital were quiet.

Those who applied for vaccinations were often medical workers. The others were older. They reminded her of her father.

When that was over, she went back straight to work, knowing the hospital wards would be full when she got there. She took out an iPhone in the car and, in Facebook status, wrote a message to her father and anyone who might pay attention.

“Corona took you away from me before you had a chance to take the vaccine,” she wrote with a photo of Ramadhan, smiling softly into his flat cap as she nestled her head on his shoulder.

“I just wanted to tell people; I wanted them to know, ”Amer said. “Just get the vaccine, please. You can save your loved ones. “

Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.

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