TEHRAN: The coronavirus outbreak disrupted worship in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia on Wednesday banned its citizens and other residents of the kingdom from performing the pilgrimage in Makkah, while Iran cancelled Friday prayers in major cities.

The Saudi move expands a ban last week on foreigners visiting Makkah and Madina. That decision alone disrupted travel for thousands of Muslims already headed to the kingdom and potentially affects plans later this year for millions more ahead of the fasting month of Ramazan and the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

Even after that announcement on Feb 27, people already in Saudi Arabia could still travel to Makkah’s Grand Mosque, where pilgrims circle the Kaaba.

The crowds were far smaller crowds than usual before Wednesday’s statement from an unidentified Interior Ministry official that was carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

It remains unclear how the ban will be enforced.

The government described the suspension as temporary, but gave no hint at when it will be lifted.

“The decision seeks to limit the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic and prevent its access to the Two Holy Mosques, which are witnessing a permanent and intense flow of human crowds, which makes the issue of securing these crowds of utmost importance,” the Saudi government said.

Iran

In Iran, authorities halted Friday prayers in all provincial capitals amid the country’s growing coronavirus outbreak, which has killed at least 92 people amid 2,922 confirmed cases. Iran and Italy have the world’s highest death tolls outside of China.

This disease is a widespread one, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told his cabinet, according to a transcript. “It encompasses almost all of our provinces and is, in a sense, a global disease that many countries in the world have become infected with, and we must work together to tackle this problem as quickly as possible,” he said.

The announcement came a week after a similar order affected Tehran and several other major cities.

There are now over 3,150 cases of the virus across the Middle East.

Top leaders in Iran’s civilian government and its theocracy have become infected with the virus. The country stands alone in how the virus has affected its government, even compared to hard-hit China, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 90,000 people and caused over 3,100 deaths.

‘Happier programmes’

Experts continue to worry that Iran may be underreporting its cases.

“The spread of the virus to almost all of Iran’s provinces leave little doubt that the authorities are struggling to contain the outbreak,” wrote Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at the risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “After a slow and politicised response to the outbreak, the government now faces a race against time to prevent a public health emergency from turning into an economic crisis.”

Jahangiri, Iran’s senior vice president, meanwhile, banned all overseas trips for officials to attend international events, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported. That did not affect Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh, who travelled with an entourage to Vienna for an OPEC meeting.

Rouhani, in his cabinet meeting, acknowledged the toll the outbreak was taking on the public. He called on state television to offer happier programmes to entertain those stuck at home.

Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2020

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