By Rangen Salam
At the beginning of the pandemic, town council members in the village where Shahla Omar lives decided to mark the houses of those infected with COVID-19 with red tape.
“When red tape was put on one of the houses down my alleyway, I was so afraid my children would catch this disease,” says 39-year-old Omar, whose home is in a small village near Halabja province in northern Iraq. “I had heard that anyone who gargles with salted water wouldn’t get sick. So I filled our small wading pool with salty water and made my children swim in it daily, so they wouldn’t’ get infected.”
Remembering this today, Omar laughs. Her children started to get really dry skin and she eventually stopped making them do this. “Fear made me and many others do some strange things,” she explains with a smile.
Omar Hamma Sayeed, 50, believed that the ingredients in traditional Kurdish food would protect him from the virus, things like garlic, lemon and cloves. So he made sure to eat well every day and also did things like drink lemon juice with sugar. It didn’t help. Sayeed began to feel under the weather and when he eventually went to the doctor, he tested positive for COVID-19.
Volunteers educate the Iraqi Kurdish public about the health crisis in the city of Erbil.
Omar and Sayeed are not the only ones. Fear of the virus has seen many people in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan undertaking strange practices and rituals to ward off sickness, especially when the health crisis first began and knowledge was scarce.
Some locals burned incense and did rituals, others became obsessed with washing the fruit and vegetables they bought at the market.
“I would only go shopping once a month,” Iman Abdul Rahman, a resident of the city of Sulaymaniyah, recalls, laughing, “And I would dress up with a mask and gloves and I’d cover my head and face completely. I thought the virus was like a mosquito that might bite me where my skin wasn’t covered.”
Rahman says she also used to try and disinfect whatever she bought at the market. One day she got home and put all of her shopping into a large bowl filled with water and vinegar. “The pasta I bought was completely soaked by the time I went to cook it for my children’s dinner. It was a mushy mess. I had to throw it out!,” she remembers.
Local sociologist Nayan Aziz says all of these reactions are the logical consequences of a fear of the unknown.
Jihad Ibrahim, the head of Halabja’s COVID-19 response team, suggests two reasons for the strange behaviour around the virus. Firstly, he says, it is just that people didn’t have enough information about the virus when the pandemic first began.
“The second reason is that people here don’t always like to do things the official way,” he suggests, noting that distrust of authorities may be related. “So they resort to unofficial ways of doing things.”
Ibrahim says that he and his team have tried to make it clear to residents in the region that the best thing they can do is wear medical masks, wash their hands regularly and keep their distance from friends and neighbours.