ROME—Like people in the rest of the world, Pope Francis is clearly going a little stir-crazy staying cooped up at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The globetrotting pontiff has been grounded since November 2019 when he visited Thailand and Japan. But if all goes to plan, Francis will hit the road again on March 5 with a four-day, six-city visit to Iraq, which has seen a spate in violence with three attacks on the U.S.-led coalition in the course of a week and a surge in coronavirus cases that sent the country into a strict two-week lockdown. The Iraq Health Ministry said the new wave is “being driven by religious activities—including Friday prayers and visits to shrines —and large crowds in markets, restaurants, malls and parks, where greetings with handshakes and kisses are the norm.”
Approximately 10,000 unvaccinated people are expected to gather together to attend a papal mass at the Franso Hariri stadium in Erbil.
The Vatican has taken extraordinary precautions to protect the papal entourage, offering everyone traveling with him, including the Vatican press corps, two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The religious ceremony in Erbil will be held in a 50,000-seat venue only filled to 20 percent capacity but since Iraq isn’t expected to start its COVID-19 vaccine rollout until the first 3 million doses arrive in late February, it can be assumed that almost no one in the crowds will have been inoculated. The Vatican has not said whether negative COVID tests are required to attend any events.
The greatest threat to the pope may be the spike in violence in Baghdad, where he will land next Friday. Katyusha rockets landed inside the high-security Green Zone near the American embassy on Monday—the third time in a week. And on Feb. 15, another attack against the U.S.-led coalition forces near Erbil’s airport killed a civilian contractor and injured others.
But Iraqi Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, who is working with Vatican secret service authorities ahead of the visit, says the anti-COVID measures in place might also keep the pope safe from attacks, since no one can enter areas where he is holding events without proper identification and assigned seating. This is designed to help with contact tracing in the event of a coronavirus outbreak. “God forbid any case would emerge,” he told the National Catholic Reporter. “We would know exactly where this person was and we could inform those around him or her that there was a case.”
Adrian Hyzler, chief medical officer for the international health, travel, and security company Healix International, told The Daily Beast that plans for the official stadium event fall in line with the rest of Europe and the U.S. in their approach to large attendance gatherings, including mask mandates and social distancing, so that could be relatively well-controlled. “However, we have all seen the huge crowds that follow papal visits,” he said. “And my greater concern would be for the uncontrolled masses of people that may gather around airports, the cathedral and the route.”