THE Saudi Arabia Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is yet to make announcement about Hajj 2021, and neither has the ministry penned any Memorandum of Understanding with any hajj-participating countries, but policy formulations and pronouncements by ministry officials and agencies concerned with hajj and umrah matters are raising hopes that hajj will take place this year.
The latest of such pronouncements was made by Saudi Arabia Minister of Health, Tawfig Al-Rabiah, on Monday. Al-Rabiah announced that COVID-19 vaccination would be a major requirement for performing hajj this year. The minister ordered the formation of a COVID-19 vaccination committee for hajj pilgrims, stressing that only those vaccinated against the disease would be allowed to participate in this year’s hajj. This is the most authoritative and strongest statement made so far as regards the possibility of the conduct of Hajj 2021 by any Saudi Arabia high-profile officials.
Al-Rabiah also called for early preparation to secure the manpower required to operate health facilities in Makkah, Madinah and the ports of entry for pilgrims for the hajj exercise. However, Al-Rabiah did not specify the number of pilgrims that Saudi Arabia will be receiving this year or mention whether the number will be limited as it was last year.
Will this year’s hajj quota remain as last year’s? Will it be reduced to, say, 50, 30 or even 20 per cent of each country’s allocations?
The waiting game continues
The Ministry of Health had on Sunday emphasised that “there are no recommendations either for medical isolation after receiving coronavirus vaccine or for a laboratory test before receiving vaccine shots.” The intent and purpose of this statement may be linked to plans to allow pilgrims who have been vaccinated to perform umrah or hajj without having to observe the three days quarantine currently being observed by umrah pilgrims. Another plausible reason is to allow a blanket vaccination of all hajj pilgrims, irrespective of whether they are positive or negative after undergoing COVID-19 test on arrival in Saudi Arabia.
Also recently, the Minister of Hajj and Umrah, Mohammed Saleh Benten, said “there are concerted efforts of government and private agencies in Saudi Arabia to cope well with the pandemic”, and the kingdom had “mobilised all its energies and capabilities to serve Islam, Muslims and all those who want to come to the Kingdom.” The minister said further: “We were able to expect not to see the random crowding that used to happen in previous years in the holy sites. This year, there will be specific standards set for services to pilgrims in Makkah and Madinah, whether they are performing Umrah or Hajj rituals.” Deductively, a new set of regulations guiding the contracting and usage of pilgrims’ accommodation, bus services, conducts of Hadaya, movement within and staying in Mashair areas may be cooking. Hajj-participating countries are yet to sign Memorandum of Understanding that could have provided compass on those services.
The minister had spoken during a seminar on the efforts of the kingdom to manage the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah throughout the pandemic. The session was part of the 20th Scientific Forum for Hajj, Umrah and Visit Research.
Another green light is the recent establishment of an emergency first aid service centre named “Haram Emergency Center 1” inside the Grand Mosque in Makkah to provide emergency health services to all visitors and pilgrims. The centre is equipped with modern medical equipment to deal with all cases and to ensure the safety and health of pilgrims. Emergency health services mentioned here may imply that a large number of pilgrims is being expected this year.
Prior to Hajj 2020, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia suspended local and international hajj and umrah pilgrims and even closed the two Holy Mosques to local worshippers. Hajj 2020 was extraordinary: Participants were limited to Saudi Arabia alone and the number of pilgrims was limited to around 10,000, compared to around 700,000 local pilgrims that performed hajj in 2019.
Fast-forward to pre-Hajj 2021, the temporary suspension of both local and international umrah pilgrims has been lifted and the two Holy Mosques are now receiving pilgrims. Hajj 2021 is loading.
Will Nigeria participate in Hajj 2021?
First, the good news is that more than 300 Nigerians have so far performed umrah despite the application of COVID-19 protocols by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. By allowing Nigerian umrah pilgrims to enter the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia shows that Nigerians will be allowed to participate in Hajj 2021.
The entry and exit of Nigerian umrah pilgrims without recorded cases of COVID-19 within the holy sites is a good development for Nigeria
Last week, Pakistan Minister for Religious Affairs, Noor-UL-Haq Qadri, said he was aware that “the Saudi government is closely monitoring the coronavirus situation and collecting data from all countries.” For that reason, if the COVID-19 push comes to shove and Saudi Arabia decides to use it as a yardstick for participation in Hajj 2021, then the arithmetic will be in favour of Nigeria.
Currently, Nigeria’s infection rate is low, compared to other top five hajj-participating countries. Pakistan with an estimated population of 225,199,937 people has 583,000 COVID-19 cases with 547,000 recoveries and 12,938 deaths. Bangladesh has a population of about 166 million people. The country has 547,000 recorded cases with 489,000 recoveries and 8,423 deaths.
Iran has an estimated population of 84 million people. It has recorded 1.64 million COVID-19 cases with 1.4 million recoveries and 60,181 deaths. Egypt with a population of about 104 million people has 184,000 COVID-19 cases, 142,000 recoveries and 10,778 deaths. Indonesia with a population of 273,523,615 people has 1.34 million COVID-19 cases with 1.15 million recoveries and 36, 235 deaths.
However, Nigeria with an estimated population of 206 million people only recorded 156,000 COVID-19 cases with 134,000 recoveries and 1, 915 deaths. Nigeria has the least infection and death rates among top hajj countries.
Over 75 per cent of Nigeria’s intending pilgrims come from rural areas, while COVID-19 infection is more common among the urban populations. Sixty to 70 percent of that fraction have little no or contacts with the inner city. Areas where the largest numbers of registered pilgrims reside have the lowest infection rates in Nigeria: Jigawa, Gombe, Kebbi, Sokoto, Kano, Kwara, Maiduguri, Bauchi, Nasarawa, Yobe, Zamfara and Katsina.
Given the above, Nigeria should be among first countries to be given a clean bill of health if COVID-19 infection rate is used as yardstick for participation in Hajj 2021.
The appointment and resumption of the new Saudi Arabia Ambassador to Nigeria, Faisal bin Ibrahim Al-Ghamdi, is also a pointer that the Kingdoms may be making preparations to welcome Nigerian pilgrims or Hajj 2021. The ambassador presented his letter of credence to President Muhammadu Buhari on 28 January, 2021. His predecessor, Adnan Bostaji, died on 4 February, 2020.
There is a high probability that hajj will take place this year and that international pilgrims will be allowed to participate, under strict protocols. The onus is now on relevant hajj stakeholders to be projective, prepare and wait for formal announcements by Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah and also prepare for the worst-case scenario.
- Muhammed is the national coordinator of the Independent Hajj Reporters.
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