The coronavirus pandemic has forced Saudi Arabia to consider cancellation of the annual hajj pilgrimage this year, according to a report published by the Financial Times.
The hajj is one of the most holy activities for Muslims which involves travelling to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia and all observant Muslims who can afford the trip and are physically able should take the journey at least once in their lifetime. Every year, about 2 million people are drawn to Saudi Arabia which makes it one of the largest religious gatherings in the world.
There is pressure in Saudi Arabian authorities to cancel this year’s hajj following the cancellation and postponement of other major world events such as the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in order to prevent the spread of the novel coornavirus pandemic, the report said.
“The issue has been carefully studied and different scenarios are being considered. An official decision will be made within one week,” a senior official from Saudi Arabia’s hajj and umrah ministry reportedly told the Financial Times.
He hajj this year is supposed to take place from July 29 to August 4. However Saudi Arabia has not yet lifted the ban it had put on international travel that was implemented on May 20. There are some countries that have already said that they would be sending any pilgrimages to Mecca this year.
According to the Financial Times report, the Saudi authorities is considering a proposal for allowing a small number of local pilgrims to perform hajj with a host of strict health precautions such as social distancing.
Another possibility being considered is to cancel the pilgrimage season altogether, the report said.
“All options are on the table but the priority is for the health and safety of pilgrims,” the official reportedly told the Financial Times.
The report also noted that after loosening lockdown measures, there has been a spike in coronavirus cases and deaths in the kingdom. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, a total of more than 119,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 893 deaths have been reported by Saudi Arabia so far.
On previous occasions of health crisis such as the viral outbreaks such as Ebola and MERS, hajj has been organized by Saudi Arabia. However the scale of the coronavirus pandemic is more than the kingdom could possibly handle and is a much greater challenge for he country to manage in terms of organizing the contract.
The Saudi government had imposed measures soon after the first case was confirmed on March 2 which included imposing restrictions on travel as well as a two-month nationwide curfew. However since the country started to loosen some of the strict lockdown measures, there has been a spike in Covid-19 cases.
The country’s economy, which is significantly dependent on revenues from oil, has been under pressure in recent years because of a slump in global oil prices, and the coronavirus pandemic has dealt another blow to the country’s economy just like all other countries. In such a situation, of the hajj is cancelled, it could put further economic pressure on the country. Revenue of about $12 billion is generated from the pilgrimage for the kingdom.
(Adapted from CNBC.com & FT.com)