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COVID-19 concerns loom over Hajj pilgrimage season

There are serious discussions to perhaps cancel the hajj season again, at least for non-citizens and non-resident pilgrims, according to Reuters

Indonesia has canceled the Hajj pilgrimage for their people Crowds of millions of pilgrims from around the world could be a hotbed for virus transmission Pilgrims must have completed both doses of COVID-19 vaccine before starting for Hajj

Before the pandemic enforced social distancing globally, some 2.5 million pilgrims used to visit the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the week-long Hajj, and the lesser, year-round Umrah pilgrimage, which altogether earned the kingdom about $12 billion a year, according to official data.

As part of economic reform plans pursued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom was hoping to raise the number of umrah and Hajj pilgrims to 15 million and 5 million respectively by 2020 and aimed to double the umrah number again to 30 million by 2030. It aims to earn $13.32 billion of revenues from the Hajj alone by 2030.

But then, the 2020 pilgrimage event was canceled due to COVID-19.

Now, there are serious discussions to perhaps cancel the hajj season again, at least for non-citizen and non-resident pilgrims, according to Reuters which said in May that Saudi is again considering banning overseas pilgrims because of worries about the emergence of new coronavirus variants.

Two sources familiar with discussions told the agency that authorities will only allow domestic pilgrims who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 at least six months before the pilgrimage.

While discussions about a possible ban have taken place, there has been no final decision on whether to pursue it.

The Saudi health ministry said in March that it will allow people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend the Hajj this year.

Indonesia cancels

Indonesia has canceled the Hajj pilgrimage for people in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, for the second year in a row, due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Due to the pandemic and for the safety of the pilgrims, the government has decided that this year it won’t allow Indonesian pilgrims to go again,” the minister of religious affairs, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, said in a statement on Thursday.

“It’s not just Indonesia … no countries have received quotas, because the memorandum of understanding has not been signed,” he said.

Confusion reigns

Restrictions might be applied to the age of participants as well

The plans were initially to allow some numbers of vaccinated pilgrims from abroad, but confusion over types of vaccines, their efficacy, and the emergence of new variants has pushed officials to reconsider.

COVID-19 infections are still rising in 35 countries. There have been at least 153.5 million reported infections and 3.35 million reported deaths caused by the new coronavirus so far.

India leads the world in the daily average number of new deaths reported, accounting for one in every four deaths reported worldwide each day.

Crowds of millions of pilgrims from around the world could be a hotbed for virus transmission.

In February, the government suspended entry to the kingdom from 20 countries, with the exception of diplomats, Saudi citizens, medical practitioners, and their families, to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

Two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine approved by the Saudi government are mandatory for anyone wanting to step foot into the country. Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are the only vaccines considered valid. 

Saudi had announced it would allow 60,000 total pilgrims only. Pakistan has requested the Saudi authorities to add Chinese vaccines Sinopharm and Sinovac to the approved list as the majority of Pakistanis are administered Chinese jabs. Meanwhile, Malaysia has begun a vaccination drive for Hajj pilgrims separately.

Hajj pilgrimage rules

These are the rules laid by Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage:

1. People under the age of 18 and above 60 years won’t be eligible.

2. Pilgrims must have completed both doses of COVID-19 vaccine before starting for Hajj and pilgrims of foreign origin should have taken Saudi approved vaccines.

3. A negative PCR test conducted 40 hours before dispatching to the area of pilgrimage in Saudi-approved laboratories is another condition announced by Riyadh.

4. The pilgrim shouldn’t have a history of sickness or hospitalization 6 months prior to the date of travel.