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2020 Hajj: Covid-19 Implications

Opinion:

By Gafar Alabi

Pilgrimage to the holy land of Mecca and Medinah (Hajj) is the fifth and the last pillars of Islam. It is regarded as Ibadah (worship), which takes place in 12th month of Dhul-Hijjah in Islamic calendar in line with Sunnah (guidelines) of holy Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). As a matter of fact, every able-bodied Muslim is required to perform it once in their lifetime provided he or she has financial and physical abilities to perform Hajj once in his/her lifetime, provided such person has financial and physical abilities to perform this classify obligation. It was clearly stated in Qur’an, Suratul Imran, Chapter 3 vs 97, “Pilgrimage to the House is a duty to God for all who can make the journey. But as for those who refuse, God is independent of the worlds.”

Unlike before, the 2020 Hajj had an unusually low attendance due to the outbreak of Coronavirus which disrupted many activities and engagement all over the world including social, economic, political not living out religious aspects of life of the people. Otherwise known as COVID-19, which initially began as a global emergency degenerated into a Pandemic which forced world leaders to take drastic measures that restricted people’s movement and limited social interactions. In line with this, the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia took a decision banning intending foreign pilgrims from performing the 2020 Hajj, limiting attendance to the residence of Saudi Arabia only.

Available records revealed that past hajj operations had between 1. 9 to 3. 2 million pilgrims across the Muslim population of the world with over $8billion generated as annual revenue for the Saudi Arabia economy. Earlier this year, Saudi Authority had indicated that the decision might be necessary to contain the spread of the virus. Some of the steps taken by the Saudi Arabia Government were; imposition of international travel ban and embargo on pilgrimage to holy sites, which is done on a yearly basis, particularly the Umrah (lesser hajj).Economists say a downsize of hajj in 2020 had caused a massive economic hit for the country and many businesses globally, such as the Hajj travel industry.

This is however not the first incident of the cancellation of the Hajj. History reveals that Hajj has been cancelled a total of 40 times due to armed conflicts, political disputes and diseases since the time of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). However, since the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Hajj has never closed until now, not even in the pandemic of the Spanish Flu. The cancellation of the pilgrimage of year 2020 makes it the 41st incidence of Hajj cancellation in history, with the twist of being the first of global proportions rather than national or regional proportions. It is not surprising, therefore, that the cancellation of this year’s Hajj exercise has had a huge impact on the host and participating countries, which has sparked grief among pilgrims with lifelong dreams of performing the Ibadah. For instance, the 2019 operation has the gathering 2.9 million people across the world compared to a trickle of about 1,000 pilgrims that participated in the year 2020.

According to an announcement made recently by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, the restrictions by Saudi Arabia were aimed at ensuring safety of pilgrims particularly in containing the transmission of coronavirus. Available statistics as at August 26, 2020, showed that COVID-19 cases in Saudi Arabia amount to over 310,836 while death rate is 3,755 with total recoveries of 284,945. The fear of the spread also informed Indonesia’s decision to withdraw from the pilgrimage first, while countries like Senegal, Malaysia and Singapore followed suit.

Islamic rules over epidemics to protect people from death and sickness go back to the very early stages of the emergence of the monotheistic religion. On many occasions, the Prophet Muhammed advised his companions to value their lives as having the utmost importance over death in his numerous sayings (hadiths), urging people to stay away from places where there were epidemics. In fact, Prophet Muhammed’s (S.A.W) hadith attested to this which says, “When you hear that [a plague] is in a land, do not go to it and if it occurs in a land that you are already in, then do not leave it, fleeing from it,” This buttress to the measures restrictions taken by Saudi Arabia Authority and indeed the world to curtail and contain the spread of novel pandemic just as it is in alignment with scriptural guidance.

Records show that the kingdom had more that 1.9 million pilgrims for Umrah and 2.5 million pilgrims for Hajj in 2019.Combined, the pilgrimages contributed approximately $12billion, equivalent seven percent of total GDP and 20 percent of its non-oil GDP to Saudi Arabia’s economy. Not minding the loss of revenue, Saudi Arabia enacted measures to control the spread of COVID-19, which has an impact on ports of entry. The position is developing day-to-day. Some months ago, the pandemic also necessitated the Saudi Arabia to close all land borders to people travelling between the Kingdom and Kuwait, the United Arab Emirate (UAE) and Bahrain. This restriction did not apply to commercial vehicles or vehicles carrying commercial goods, which were subject to strict screening procedures at the dry ports and land borders.

Recently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs banned Kingdom of Saudi Arabia citizens and residents from travelling to the UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, South Korea, Egypt, Italy and Iraq. The ban also included the suspension of the travel of non-KSA citizens from these countries to the Saudi Arabia. Following these measures, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the suspension of travel by air and sea between the Saudi Arabia and the listed countries save for evacuation, commercial shipping, and trade purposes. As a result of this, the hospitality sector has been deeply shaken and affected by pandemic and its attendant effects. Hotel occupancy rates and revenues have been negatively affected, while the revenue obtained during the hajj exercise were not available as countries around the world imposed travel bans to stop the spread of the novel virus.

The mass layoff, furlough or leave without pay arrangements that are being implemented across the hospitality industry also pose a risk to the source of livelihoods of workers in the industry. This has occasioned the need for better strategies to be adopted to address the issue of staff retention and welfare in unforeseen circumstances like this where business activity abruptly comes to an end for some periods. The long term effects of these mass layoffs have yet to be felt but will no doubt, have long reaching repercussions for the industry as a whole, and may pose irreparable damages to the reputation of the hospitality industry of the kingdom. Besides, the closure of 2020 Hajj and its ripple effect on Muslims in Africa and Nigeria as a whole cannot be quantified as there are many, whose dreams and aspiration were shattered due to the pandemic.

“And in accordance with what has been stressed by the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Health regarding the continued risks stemming from this pandemic and the lack of available vaccinations and a cure for those who have been infected by COVID-19 around the world; and to preserve the security of global public health, especially in light of the increase in the number of cases in most countries according to reports issued by global health organizations and institutions; “And considering the risks of the disease and infections spreading in crowded gatherings where it is difficult to maintain safe social distancing among the individuals gathered; have prompted the authority to ban international Hajj in 2020”, a report originated from the kingdom stated.

Saudi Arabia’s top priority is to always enable Muslim pilgrims perform Hajj and Umrah rites safely and securely and this has been since the beginning of the pandemic, taking all necessary precautionary measures to protect pilgrims. This included the suspension of the entry of Umrah pilgrims while ensuring the safety of the pilgrims already present at the holy sites, a decision that has received many approbations from Islamic and international organizations in recognition of its wide contribution to fighting the virus globally and supporting the efforts of health organizations in limiting the spread of the deadly disease, irrespective of huge amount of revenue at lost.

The Nigerian authority on Hajj confirmed their alignment with the stipulations by the Saudi authorities. Chairman and the Chief Executive Officer, National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Zikrullah Kunle Hassan, welcomed the news of the cancellation with complete regard to the will of the Almighty, as he commended the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for this brave decision, which resulted from the need to protect and preserve the lives of the pilgrims. He gave the intending pilgrims with two options – to readily have their refund to the last kobo, or leave it in the agency’s safe hands till next year’s hajj operation. On the side of private Hajj and Umrah services operators, the NAHCON boss assured that “this would not pose any problem, as we will apply the instrument of the law to ensure the pilgrims have a refund if they so desire. We have a responsibility to also ensure they are refunded to the last kobo.”

The Ogun State government did not fail to show its dedication to serve all the people of the state, irrespective of their religion. At the inception of the present administration, in spite of the short notice and the proximity in time for the 2019 Pilgrimage to commence, the new government under the leadership of Prince Dapo Abiodun, set up an Operation Committee to see to the successful operation of 2019 Hajj, with feats recorded by his administration such as completion of E-Visa generation of all intending pilgrims of the State with the Saudi Arabia kingdom through NAHCON, fully funded all expenses (hajj fares and estacode allowances) of (58) officials and other recurrent operations in Saudi Arabia, sponsored One Hundred and Fourteen(114)Muslim faithful with all expenses in terms of Hajj Fares and Basic Travelling Allowances fully paid.

That was not all; the State helmsman also provided comfortable accommodation at a location very close to Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah within Reah-Bash Axis that made Hajj exercise more convenient for our pilgrims. The accommodations were relatively on high rate but subsidized by the State Government, provisions of adequate fund and other logistics in the area of transportation, medical equipment, procurement of drugs, excursion expenses in Saudi Arabia by the State government, and cash donations as a form of welfare package to all Pilgrims during the festive period of Idul-Adha for their up-keep were some of the activities of the government to support the Hajj pilgrimage. These were unprecedented and highly appreciated by the pilgrims.

The State recorded a reasonable level of discipline, as there were no reported criminal cases such as drug trafficking, defection, missing pilgrims or death, theft and prostitution against the State Pilgrims. In fact, the State Pilgrims were among the best adjudged pilgrims for comportment and peaceful conduct in the Holy land. There was also the payment of the sum Twenty-Four Thousand (#24,000.00) as refund to 724 Pilgrims as all of them returned safely which is unprecedented in the history of Hajj operations in the State. Ogun pilgrims can equally attest to the responsiveness of the Government, especially when the last batch had a delay in flight. The Deputy Governor, Engr. (Mrs.) Noimat Salako Oyedele, visited pilgrims at the airport in Lagos and made provisions for feeding, also appealing to them to maintain decorum. This gesture went down well with pilgrims as they felt catered for even after the delay.

Additionally, the day of Arafah in Saudi Arabia was not without the feel of the government back home. The Deputy Governor called from Nigeria to congratulate, rejoice and pray with pilgrims present at Arafah. In her message, she urged those at Arafah to pray for themselves, families and Ogun State Government. But in view of the above support for the Muslim community, and in regards of the prevention of international pilgrims from participating in year 2020 Hajj as announced by Saudi Authority, the State government through the Ogun State Muslim Pilgrims’ Welfare Board (OGSMPWB) has assured all intending pilgrims from the State of safety of their initial Hajj deposit with the Board promises t that the State government will surely replicate the 2019 gesture in 2021 Hajj exercise and special consideration would be accorded them, as it would be on first-come, first-served basis.

The outbreak of Covid-19 has taught us huge lessons especially how to plan for eventuality which might occur at any given time. The novel virus has affected the economy sector globally, which made some of the private company’s layoff their staff due to inability to pay their salaries. It also affects business transactions both locally and internationally. Nigeria as a country is also affected economically, socially, politically and religiously because churches and mosques were closed down in order to contain the spread of the virus, which enforces everybody to pray at home. All the hotels, event centres, stadia and other activities were locked down so as to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Political gathering was not left out during the period where any activities that has to do with politics was converted to virtual meetings, not only in Nigeria but across the world and indeed, Ogun State is affected and requires concerted efforts by all stakeholders to synergize and re strategize on how to revamp and stabilize it.

*Alabi, an Information officer, Ogun State Ministry of Information & Strategy writes from Oke-Mosan, Abeokuta, Ogun State.

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