ROME – On the same day a top Vatican official insisted that Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Iraq is still on the books, and that the pontiff is determined to go, the country’s health ministry issued a statement warning of a possible second wave of the COVID-19 coronavirus, which, they said, could be deadlier than the first.

In a Jan. 29 statement, Iraq’s Ministry of Health and Environment noted that many countries throughout the world are currently seeing “a serious increase” in both infections and deaths related to the coronavirus pandemic, despite the rollout of vaccines.

This second wave, they said, “has been proven to be harsher and deadlier than the first wave” due to the emergence of dangerous new strains more lethal than the original coronavirus, including new strains coming out of South Africa and the UK.

The ministry lamented that its numerous warnings against non-compliance with health and safety norms have gone unheeded by the general population.

Although there was a clear improvement in infection rates in Iraq shortly after the holidays, attributed to increased clinical, therapeutical, and diagnostic capacity, the ministry warned that the situation has deteriorated in the past two weeks, with infection rates continuing to rise.

This trend, they said, could be indicative of “a second wave of the pandemic, and God forbid, it might be worse than the first due to the absence of compliance with preventive measures … from most citizens.”

Should Iraqis continue to shrug off safety protocols such as social distancing and mask-wearing, the ministry said it could be forced “to take more severe decisions and actions, such as partial lockdown and closure of vital facilities with human gatherings” in order to stop the spread and “protect citizens from the catastrophic effects of the next wave.”

The ministry’s statement adds to growing doubt that Pope Francis’s scheduled March 5-8 trip to Iraq will be able to take place. Concerns over security in the wake of recent terrorist attacks, the increase in COVID cases, and the pope’s health after two serious bouts of sciatica this month have all led observers to question the feasibility of the trip.

In an interview that aired Jan. 19 on French Catholic television channel KTOTV, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the pope would still like to go, despite the obstacles.

“We’ve seen it in recent encounters with him: He’s very interested in the trip to Iraq, regardless of the complications it might have,” Parolin said. While there are some challenges with security, “the pope wants to go to encourage Christians.”

“In these past years we’ve seen a hemorrhage of Christians from this country, mostly as a result of the war situation. The Christian community is greatly reduced, and the pope feels the need to go to encourage these Christians to give witness in an environment that is in no way easy,” he said.

Should the pope go as planned, he is scheduled to visit the cities of Baghdad, Erbil, Qaraqosh, and Mosul, as well as the Plain of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham.

He is also expected to make a brief stop in the city of Najaf for a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, one of the most senior clerics in Shia Islam and one of the Shiite’s most influential leaders, to advance his pursuit of interfaith dialogue.

Like Francis, Al-Sistani is an advocate of taking the coronavirus vaccines.

“In such circumstances, it is appropriate to rely on the advice given by experienced medical experts, “ Sistani said in response to questions submitted to him by a Muslim body. “As per Shari’ah, it is mandatory to use an approved vaccine in a situation when the probability of suffering from the Coronavirus infection, with its potentially life threatening and/or serious untreatable complications, far outweigh the probable serious side effects of getting vaccinated.”

The visit would also likely provide an opportunity for Francis to warn against the dangers of corruption as Iraq works to reform a government accused of rampant corruption at the highest levels. The country is expected to hold parliamentary elections in October, which were postponed from their original date in June due to the pandemic.

However, given the Iraqi health ministry’s warning, the situation with the coronavirus could get worse before it gets better. If a second, more deadly wave of the virus should break out in Iraq, the likelihood that the papal visit will happen is limited.

Iraq, as of Saturday, had recorded some 618,922 cases and 13,041 deaths. In the country’s Kurdish region, there have been at least 105,912 confirmed cases and 3,466 deaths.

Pope Francis has already received the Pfizer anti-COVID vaccine,  but Iraq has not yet had its first vaccine delivery, which is expected to arrive sometime in February.

In the statement, the ministry urged Iraqi citizens to take preventative measures seriously, such as wearing masks, social distancing, frequent use of hand sanitizer, and to refrain from practices such as handshakes, hugging, organizing large gatherings, and giving the traditional kiss on the cheek as a greeting.

They also urged all other ministries, government institutions, and those in the private sector to comply with preventative measures, requiring employees wear masks, keep a safe distance, and refrain from holding gatherings.

Media were also asked to “intensify” their efforts to encourage citizens to adhere to preventative norms.

The ministry asked the government to provide “all necessary medical supplies, preventive, diagnostic, and curative, and to expand clinical capacity to accommodate the expected increase in the number of infections and to prepare plans to deal with the upcoming health challenges.”

“May Allah protect Iraq and its people from all harm,” they said, thanking all those caring for COVID patients and those who work to prevent the spread of the virus.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen