Saudi Arabia halts pilgrimage visa over fears of COVID-19

HAJJ: Pilgrims in Saudi Arabia. [Photo credit: PBS]
HAJJ: Pilgrims in Saudi Arabia. [Photo credit: PBS]

Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended visas for pilgrims wishing to visit Mecca over fears of Covid-19, the foreign ministry said.

The visa suspension is coming some months ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage.

This move came as the Middle East has over 240 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus. Neighbouring countries such as Iran, Kuwait and Bahrain have all reported confirmed cases of the disease.

This decision by Saudi Arabia stops foreigners from reaching the holy city of Mecca, the Kaaba, and will also affect travel to Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina.

Authorities have also suspended entry to the kingdom to those with tourist visas from nations affected by the new virus. This will affect the holy pilgrimage known as Umrah, which can be performed at any time of the year.

The decision showed the Saudi authorities are worried about the outbreak potentially spreading into the country and are trying to keep out the epidemic as much as possible.

Diseases outbreaks have always been a concern surrounding the hajj, as thousands of pilgrims attend from all over the world. With the nature of the new coronavirus, the Saudi authorities might not be able to combat an outbreak of such magnitude.

Middle East

Although there has been a decline in the cases reported from China, fresh cases are constantly on the rise in some parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

While Saudi Arabia is yet to report any confirmed case of the disease, Iran is currently the hot-spot for the disease in the Middle East.

Iran now has the highest death toll from the virus — 22 dead from among 141 confirmed cases — outside of China, where the outbreak began.

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Also, two top Iranian government officials in the country – the deputy minister of Health and an MP – are among those who have contracted the disease.

The epicentre in Iran is the holy Shiite city of Qom, where the faithful in reverence reach out to kiss and touch a famous shrine.

The Iranian government has also refused the quarantine measures, saying it is too traditional.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said there were no immediate plans to quarantine cities but acknowledged it may take “one, two or three weeks” to get control of the virus in Iran.

Also, Kuwait announced that the cases in the country have risen to 43 cases from 26 on Thursday. All the cases confirmed were also linked to travelers who recently came from Iran.

Other countries in the region which have confirmed at least a case of Coronavirus are Iraq and Bahrain, all linking cases to Iran.

Iraq

As of Thursday, Iraq reported six cases of the virus and link all cases to travellers from neighbouring country, Iran.

Iraqi authorities have, however, taken drastic measures to stem the spread by ordering schools and universities closed for 10 days, starting Thursday.

The government also banned public gatherings and ordered the closure of cinemas, cafes, clubs and other social forums for the same period.

AFP said it was not immediately clear whether the ban on public gatherings would include anti-government protest sites such as Baghdad’s landmark Tahrir Square, where demonstrators have been staging a sit-in for months.

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