IGNORANCE + EMPATHY: How to catch COVID-19 in a Nasiriyah taxi

As soon as I eased into the front seat of the taxi and asked to be taken to work, the taxi driver turned around and surprised me, commanding me in a firm voice to, “put your mask on, please!”

I didn’t have a mask with me so he reached into the glove compartment and took out a small piece of blue cloth. “Don’t worry,” the driver, whose name is Mohammad Subaih, said. “Just put this on.”

By Murtada al-Hadood

He then picked up a small plastic bottle and sprayed disinfectant into my hands. I was grateful and thanked him, then told him I wish that God would give us more taxi drivers like him.

Subaih and I spent about half an hour driving the streets of Nasiriyah together. He seemed to be obsessed with the COVID-19 pandemic and talked about it constantly.

He started off telling me about how the virus had spread throughout the country and how the central government and provincial councils had failed to act, as well as how poor a condition Iraqi hospitals and clinics were in. So many people here fail to take the proper precautions and are completely ignorant about the virus, Subaih complained. They believe so many rumors about it too.

He then moved on to telling me about friends, relatives and other people he knew of who had caught the disease or who had died. One was very young, he said, others were very old and died within just a few hours of their diagnosis.

He began each story with the words, “may God have mercy on his, or her, soul.” This went on until we reached my workplace.  

I reached into my pocket to pay him and then he asked me to return the mask. “Please give it back,” he said. “The passengers that come after you will also need it.”

Angry and shocked, I realized that I was not the first person to use this mask. And I had to stop at that stage and talk to Subaih about why he does this.

The virus dies when it comes in contact with the mask, he explained to me. So it couldn’t be transmitted between different people using the masks, he argued.

Subaih finished high school and he has seen a lot of reports about the pandemic on television as well as on how to take precautions against it. That is why, he says, he is one of the few drivers in the city who cleans his whole car every morning. He disinfects the door handles, the windshield and the leather seats and leaves scented disposable wipes in the back as well as carrying the sanitizer spray he offered me.

We talked for a while but I just couldn’t convince him that what he was doing wasn’t helping anybody. He drove off, determined to continue this behavior, that arises from a strange of ignorance and empathy mixture. He really believes he is fighting the good fight against the coronavirus!

I wrote this story down as soon as I got work. In front of me today, is a TV presenter announcing that around half a million people in Iraq are infected with COVID-19 and that there have been 12,000 deaths in the country. I cannot help but wonder how many of them caught my new friend’s cab.

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