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COVID-19: Uncertainty looms over this year’s hajj

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Although millions of Muslims across the world, including those from Bangladesh, have eagerly been waiting to perform hajj in late July this year, uncertainty looms large over their largest congregation as the Saudi government is yet to take any decision in this regard as the coronavirus pandemic keeps on deteriorating.

Amid speculations that the holy hajj might be cancelled this year as coronavirus spread to most countries of the world, Saudi Arabia on March 31 urged Muslims to delay their plans for hajj.

Talking to UNB, State Minister for Religious Affairs Sheikh Md Abdullah said the Saudi government is yet to take any decision over hajj this year.

“Now it depends on Saudi government’s decision and the coronavirus situation,” he said.

A total of 137,198 Bangladesh nationals were scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia to perform hajj this year with 17,198 under government and 120,000 under non-government management, officials said.

According to Religious Affairs Ministry, 64,594 people have so far registered to perform hajj this year — 3,457 under government management and 61,594 under private management.

Earlier on February 24, the Cabinet approved the draft Hajj Package-2020, fixing the minimum cost for an intending pilgrim at Tk 3.15 lakh under package-3 managed by the government.

Asked about registration for hajj, Abdullah said, “Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the registration process is on as we can send people to the pilgrimage after the announcement of the Saudi government.”

However, the number of people getting registered for hajj is low this year due to uncertainty over amid the pandemic.

Asked if the intending pilgrims miss the chance to perform hajj this year despite registraiton, the State Minister said, “They’ll be allowed to perform hajj next year.”

Assuring those who have already got registered for hajj, Abdullah said, “Don’t worry. If you cannot perform hajj this year, you can do it next year, and if you want your money back, it’ll be given. I can give you that guarantee.”

The hajj registration process completed on April 30 after the extension of deadline for several times.

Religious Affairs Secretary Nurul Islam told UNB the time for registration will not be extended anymore due to the coronavirus situation.

“There’s an uncertainty over hajj this year, and everybody knows that,” he said adding, “We’ll take steps after seeing the Saudi government’s decision. Whatever be the decision, nobody will be deprived of the hajj money they spent for registration, he added.

M Shahadat Hossain Taslim, president of Hajj Agencies Association of Bangladesh (HAAB), said, “We’re ready now as the registration for hajj is completed. It’s really hard to confirm about hajj this year. Still, we’re waiting for the final decision.”

The hajj pilgrimage is expected to begin on July 30 this year, depending on the sighting of moon.

The pilgrimage has not been canceled since the founding of the Saudi Kingdom in 1932, reports AP.

Diseases and Hajj

There are reports that the first time an epidemic of any kind caused hajj to be cancelled was an outbreak of plague in A.D. 967. And drought and famine caused the Fatimid ruler to cancel overland hajj routes in A.D. 1048, reports AP.

Meanwhile, throughout the 19th century, Cholera outbreaks in multiple years, claimed thousands of pilgrims’ lives during the hajj.

One cholera outbreak in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in 1858 forced thousands of Egyptians to flee to Egypt’s Red Sea border, where they were quarantined before being allowed back in.

For much of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, cholera remained a “perennial threat” and caused frequent disruption to the annual hajj.

So did the plague. An outbreak of cholera in India in 1831 claimed thousands of pilgrims’ lives on their way to perform hajj.

In fact, with so many outbreaks in such quick succession, hajj was frequently interrupted throughout the mid-19th century.

The global death toll from coronavirus climbed to 334,616 as of Friday morning.

According to worldometer data, the confirmed coronavirus cases in various countries of the world are now 5, 194,106.