Saudi Arabia has imposed a 24-hour curfew over Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, as it fights to contain a Covid-19 outbreak. Saudi Arabia is telling Muslims worldwide to suspend Hajj plans amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The kingdom earlier this week raised the possibility of cancelling Hajj, the pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites obligatory for every Muslim once in their lifetime.
The government has meanwhile instructed residents of Mecca and Medina to “self-quarantine.” They may only leave their homes in case of emergency, and only between the hours of 6am and 3pm.
While he referred to the measure as “precautionary” it is the most severe curfew nationwide. Even Shiite-majority eastern regions, isolated citizens brought the virus back from Iran, have curfews beginning at 3pm.
Mecca and Medina have the largest concentration of new infections, according to the Saudi health ministry, which flagged nearly 100 fresh cases on Thursday.
The coastal city of Jeddah was another hotspot, with 30 new cases.
Saudi Arabia, a country of some 33 million people, has recorded a total of 1,885 cases. The neighbouring United Arab Emirates has more than 1,000 cases, while Iran has more than 50,000.
Saudi Arabia to Muslims: Hold off on Hajj
Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Hajj has called on Muslims to hold off on planning the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca while the kingdom – and the world – deals with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Dr Mohammed Saleh bin Taher Benten called on the countries of the world to be patient in concluding pilgrimage contracts for this year, until the path of the epidemic and its present and future impact will be clear,” the Saudi press agency reported overnight.
Saudi Arabia has thus far recorded more than 1,500 cases of the novel coronavirus and had 10 deaths.
Early on in the outbreak, the kingdom took the decision to close the gates of Mecca out of fear it could become a new epicenter for the virus, as happened in Iran’s holy city of Qom.
Visa fees already paid by pilgrims would be refunded, the Hajj minister told Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ekhbariya TV.
He further assured the public that hotels being used for quarantine would be carefully inspected by the Health Ministry before any resumption of pilgrimages.
Last year, nearly 2.5 million people performed Hajj, one of the obligatory pillars of Islam. More than 1 million of those pilgrims arrived from Asian (non-Arab) countries.
This year’s Hajj was meant to take place from July 28 to August 2.
Its likely cancellation will be a financial blow to Saudi Arabia, which can count on the annual pilgrimage for billions in revenue. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in particular, sees religious tourism as key to his plans for the post-oil world. His Vision 2030 blueprint calls for a ramping up Hajj attendance nearly threefold, to 6 million people.
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