Pilgrims wear protective face masks to prevent contracting coronavirus, as they arrive at the Grand Mosque in the Holy City of Makkah on Thursday. AFP
Even as the coronavirus seemed to be spreading its malignant influence in new countries outside China, countries in the Middle East were leaving nothing to chance, revving up preparations to tackle the problem on a war footing.
Iraq and Turkey have shut borders with Iran. Bahrain has closed schools and nurseries for two weeks. Iraq banned public gatherings and barred entry by travellers from Kuwait and Bahrain.
Even Saudi Arabia was not taking any chances: in a major move on Thursday it halted travel to the holiest sites in Islam over fears about the viral epidemic just months ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, a move that came as the Mideast has over 220 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus.
The extraordinary decision by Saudi Arabia stops foreigners from reaching the Holy City of Makkah.
The decision also affected travel to Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) mosque in Medina. Authorities also suspended entry to the kingdom to those with tourist visas from nations affected by the new virus.
Iran now has the highest death toll from the virus outside of China, where the outbreak began.
There have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Saudi Arabia amid the outbreak.
"Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus, and urges its citizens to exercise caution before traveling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement announcing the decision. "We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm.”
Since it emerged in December in central China, the new coronavirus has sickened 82,000 people globally, with more than 2,700 deaths.
While millions attend the Hajj, which is this year set for late July into early August, millions more come during the rest of the year to the holy sites in the kingdom. Those other pilgrimages are referred to as the Umrah. One of the biggest times for the Umrah is the Holy Month of Ramadan, which is set to begin at the end of April.
"It is unprecedented, at least in recent times, but given the worldwide spread of the virus and the global nature of the Umrah, it makes sense from a public health and safety point of view,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. "Especially since the Iranian example illustrates how a religious crossroads can so quickly amplify the spread and reach of the virus.”
The state-run Saudi Press Agency cited Saleh Bin Taher Banten's remarks in stories early on Wednesday, saying that Muslims should "be patient” in making their plans for the Hajj. The pilgrimage was expected to begin in late July this year.
The announcement comes amid uncertainty over the Hajj which is due to take place at the end of July, after authorities this week urged Muslims to temporarily defer preparations for the annual pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia will gradually resume the year-round Umrah pilgrimage for Muslims from October 4, the interior ministry said Tuesday, seven months after it was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 820 people were injured and about 15,000 people have been evacuated, the agency said. Some have sought refuge in the mountains, while others went to cramped evacuation centres, witnesses said.
Guterres said the world’s leading economies have a special responsibility to support the World Health Organization’s COVAX program to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people.
After spending more than two months trying to overturn the results of the November election, pushing false conspiracy theories about fraud, Trump’s presence had not been expected at the inauguration.
India, the world’s most populous country after China, has said it may not need to vaccinate all of its 1.35 billion people to create herd immunity. Still, covering even half its population will make it one of the largest immunisation programmes in the world, even if countries like the United States were