Saudi Arabian authorities yesterday announced a temporary ban on entry of Umrah pilgrims as part of efforts to protect the kingdom from the dangerous new coronavirus ravaging China and spreading throughout the world. Saudi's Ministry of Foreign Affairs made the announcement via a tweet.
In the same vein, Nigeria's National Hajj Commission (NAHCON) yesterday directed prospective Umrah pilgrims to shelve their plans for the lesser hajj as global efforts to contain the coronavirus menace heightened.
It is not clear how the temporary ban will affect the annual Hajj pilgrimage scheduled to hold in the next five months.
So far, some of the countries that have recorded cases of the coronavirus include China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, USA, Republic of Singapore, Vietnam, Australia, and Nepal.
Others are France, Malaysia, Canada, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Germany, United Arab Emirates, Philippines, India, Finland, Italy, Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, Belgium, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and Israel.
Saudi Arabian officials said the ban on Umrah was an attempt to ensure public safety. The kingdom has stopping issuing visas to pilgrims and visitors to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
About seven million people from the six continents perform the Umrah pilgrimage in the holy city of Makkah every year. The pilgrims also visit the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah.
Hundreds of thousands of Muslim faithful from Nigeria also travel for the Umrah which is performed any time of the year, but more prominently during the month of Ramadan or during the commemoration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in the Islamic month of Rabiul Auwal.
Why Saudi bans Umrah pilgrimage
On Wednesday, Dr. Hani bin Abdul Aziz Jokhdar, who is Saudi's deputy minister of public health, said they had issued guidelines on how to avoid the spread of the coronavirus based on the kingdom's experience of protecting the health and well-being of pilgrims during the Hajj season.
Saudi's foreign ministry had warned its citizens against travelling to countries where the disease has been recorded.
The ministry wrote: "In completion of the efforts taken to provide the utmost protection to the safety of citizens and residents and everyone who intends to come to the territory of the Kingdom to perform Umrah or visit the Prophet's Mosque or for the purpose of tourism and based on the recommendations of the competent health authorities to apply the highest precautionary standards and take proactive preventive measures to prevent the arrival of the new Coronavirus (COVID-19) to the Kingdom and its spread, the Kingdom's government has decided to take the following precautions:
"Suspending entry to the Kingdom for the purpose of Umrah and visiting the Prophet's Mosque temporarily.
"Suspending entry into the Kingdom with tourist visas for those coming from countries in which the spread of the new Coronavirus (COVlD-19) is a danger, according to the criteria determined by the competent health authorities in the Kingdom.
"Suspending the use by Saudi nationals and citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of the national identity card to travel to and from the Kingdom, except for Saudis who are abroad if their exit from the Kingdom is with the national identity card, and citizens of the GCC countries currently inside the Kingdom, and wish to return from it to their countries, in case that their entry was with the national identity card, in order for the concerned authorities at the entry points to verify from which countries visitors came before their arrival to the kingdom, and apply health precautions to deal with those coming from those countries."
Saudi officials said the restrictions were temporary and would be continuously reviewed by the health authorities.
They, however, did not state exactly when the ban will be lifted as thousands of prospective travellers have already procured their travel documents, including flight tickets and accommodation.
Analysts believed that the decision might not be unconnected with the fact that seven Saudis were among the latest coronavirus cases in Bahrain and Kuwait. The Bahraini Ministry of Health on Wednesday said six Saudi women had tested positive for the virus.
They reportedly arrived at Bahrain International Airport on a flight from Iran.
NAHCON asks pilgrims to suspend Umrah arrangements
The National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) yesterday called on intending pilgrims planning to visit Saudi Arabia for the Umrah to suspend the arrangement until further notice.
In a statement signed by its Head of Public Affairs, Fatima Sanda Usara, the commission urged intending pilgrims for Umrah to note that the suspension affected those who had already been issued travel visas and were about to embark on the journey as well as those planning to kick start the process.
It noted that measures were being taken in accordance with approved international standards towards curtailing the spread of any disease.
The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Abuja also said it would issue a statement today.
A vice president of Iran, Masoumeh Ebtekar, is said to have shown symptoms of the new coronavirus, a state-owned newspaper said.
She is the VP for women and family affairs. Her symptoms were, however, said to be mild and that she was not admitted to hospital.
Ebtekar is the second member of the Iranian government known to be infected, after Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirshi, originally tasked with containing the spread of the virus, tested positive for the COVID-19 on February 25.
Friday Prayers in Tehran have been cancelled over the coronavirus outbreak, state media reported, as the authorities confirmed that infected cases in the country spiked by more than 100
Iran has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths outside China. At least 26 people have died and there have been 254 confirmed cases, including 106 new infections.
No novel coronavirus testing kits at Nigerian airports
Senate President Ahmad Lawan yesterday indicted the Federal Ministry of Health for not putting serious measures in place to prevent the outbreak of the new coronavirus in Nigeria.
He urged the Senate Committee on Primary Health Care to liaise with the ministry to intensify screening of passengers at the nation's airports and seaports.
Lawan stated this following a point of order by the Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Ajayi Boroffice.
Checks at some Nigerian airports revealed that there were no new procedures for testing and the possibility of identifying people infected by the disease.
At the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, the testing is still limited to the checking of body temperature; the same pattern that subsisted since the outbreak of the Ebola virus.
The situation was the same at Kano, Enugu and Port Harcourt.
Airport workers familiar with the facilities say no knew special equipment for testing for Covid19 had arrived at the airports.
One of our correspondents who visited Abuja airport reported that not much had changed. Some passengers told our correspondent that they expected a more intense testing architecture.
"There should be at least two layers of tests," a passenger who gave his name as Mr Alaba John said. Other passengers who spoke under anonymity also expressed concern over the level of checks.
When our correspondent sought comment of Mrs. Hope Ivbaze, the spokeswoman of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) at the airport about the intensity of the screening, she referred him to the Federal Ministry of Health. "It is the Ministry of Health that is in charge of the screening, so you can get clarifications from there," she said.
No confirmed coronavirus in Nigeria
The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) said yesterday that the 31 suspected cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria have been found to be negative.
"This means Nigeria is free of coronavirus," said the Director, Emergency Preparedness and Response of NCDC, Dr John Oladejo.
He disclosed this in Sokoto at a symposium on 'The Story of Lassa fever and COVID-19', organised by the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto.
He assured that they had the necessary devices to detect the disease and that screening had been strengthened at points of entry while in-country surveillance had been enhanced through state epidemiologists.
On diagnostic capacity, he said, "We now have testing capacity in three places: The National Reference Laboratory in Abuja; the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) and at Irrua in Edo State."
He also noted that as at February 23, the total laboratory-confirmed cases stood at 78,811 out of them 77,042 were from China, while the number of deaths stood at 2,462 out of which 17 were outside China.
Mixed feelings among tour operators over Umrah ban
Umrah operators yesterday expressed mixed feelings over the decision of Saudi authorities to suspend Umrah because of the new coronavirus global threat.
Some of the operators are, however, hopeful that the suspension would not be for a long period, to the extent of affecting their turnover for the year.
According to the tour operators who spoke with our correspondent, the decision was in the interest of safety of those coming to the holy land for the lesser Hajj.
Managing Director of Al Qiblah International Services Limited Alhaji Abdulfatai Abdulmajeed said the action no doubt would bring financial meltdown for Umrah operators just as the Saudi Arabian authorities would also lose money as a result of the suspension.
He said it was a sacrifice that had to be made for the safety of millions of people going to Saudi Arabia for the Umrah.
"It is better to take precautions in order to avoid bigger problem because there is no way people would not have contact with one another," Abdulmajeed, a former President of the Association of Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHUON) said.
Another operator, Hajia Hassanat Osigbesan, said, "The suspension is just for a period of time. According to our visa agent, they are trying to get the facilities ready to manage any eventuality."
She said the action must have been taken ahead of the Ramadan fast which witnesses increased patronage of pilgrims for the lesser Hajj.
In Kano State, the ban has affected many tour operators who have either an ongoing Saudi visa processing or have already secured visas for their clients.
The CEO of Arafat Traveling Agency, Alhaji Abdulazeez Arafat, said some of his customers billed to depart to Saudi Arabia on Saturday would not travel any longer until the embargo was lifted.
Another tour operator, Shehi Kyaure, told Daily Trust that he had secured visas for his clients but everything had been suspended.