Saudi Arabia halted foreign travel to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Millions of Muslims have their plans disrupted. News outlets called the move “unprecedented in modern history.”
The Hajj, a yearly pilgrimage to the two cities, is set to occur in July. Now, pilgrims are participating in the “umrah” that brings millions of followers, particularly during Ramadan, which is set for April. Indonesia tried to petition Saudi Arabia to allow their people to complete the “umrah.” It did not work.
“Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus and urges its citizens to exercise caution before travelling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks.” Saudi Foreign Ministry via Al Jazeera
The main problem? The number of Coronavirus cases in Iran – now up to 254, including Masoumeh Ebtekar, a former spokeswoman for the rigid Islamic regime. Twenty six people in Iran, primarily in the city of Qom, have died. The Saudis suspended the ability of travelers from Iran and foreign countries with known cases of COVID-19. Tourist visas are no longer valid from those countries at this time.
How did Iran get the coronavirus? Cases have spiked in recent days. Officials say that part of the problem rests in the practice of kissing the shrine in the Shiite city of Qom. Iran’s civilian government has asked that the shrine be closed, but thus far the radical Islamic regime has not done so. Tehran has, however, reportedly cancelled Friday Jummah prayers.
US News and World Report wrote:
News of the cancellation shocked the Muslim world, as many save their entire lives for a chance to see the Kaaba and walk along the path of the Prophet Muhammad and visit his tomb in Medina.
Hundreds of faithful deplaned in Pakistan as the ban came into effect, while Indonesia and Turkey had to turn away thousands of pilgrims set to fly. Authorities at Cairo’s international airport said the Saudi decision created “intense confusion” and “extreme anger” among thousands of passengers waiting for flights. Security officials needed to call in reinforcements to control the crowd as news of the ban broke, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t allowed to speak to reporters.
Disease outbreaks always have been a concern surrounding the hajj, which is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life, especially as pilgrims come from all over the world. The earliest recorded outbreak came in 632 as pilgrims fought off malaria. A cholera outbreak in 1821 killed an estimated 20,000 pilgrims. Another cholera outbreak in 1865 killed 15,000 pilgrims and then spread worldwide.
Officials are concerned that Iran may be underreporting cases of the virus. Iranian leader Rouhani says there are “no immediate plans” to quarantine cities, but as we’ve seen from other totalitarian governments, that is a relative statement.
“This is a very tough decision. But with the rapid spread of COVID-19 and a lack of good diagnostics, preventative vaccines and therapeutics, this is the best decision that could be taken at such difficult times.” Dr Ziad A Memish, Saudi Professor
The Saudi action is “open-ended,” so it may indeed disrupt millions of people from their yearly plans to visit Mecca and Medina. In light of the virus outbreak…that’s a good thing.
Featured photo: the Hajj in Mecca via Encyclopedia Britannica