Concerns over limited global vaccinations and the emergence of several Covid-19 variants were behind Saudi Arabia's decision to limit the number of pilgrims performing Hajj this year, the kingdom's deputy health minister said on Thursday.
Speaking at a WHO conference for the Eastern Mediterranean region, Dr Hani Jokhdar said when the kingdom assessed the pandemic situation in the region, they opted to limit the Hajj season to just vaccinated residents of Saudi Arabia, whether they are locals or foreign.
"We took this decision for the greater good of everyone. We don't want Hajj this year to turn into an infection hotspot," he said.
He added the kingdom was also concerned about the limited number of vaccines being supplied to Muslim-majority countries whose citizens perform Hajj every year.
"We are also quite concerned about the emergence of four variants of Covid-19 that are not so well understood, so we want to protect everyone as much as possible," said Dr Jokhdar.
The kingdom is well-equipped to receive this year’s pilgrims, he said, who number a fraction of the pilgrims who performed Hajj in the years before the pandemic.
The Saudi Health Ministry announced on June 17 that it would only allow 60,000 Muslim residents of the kingdom into the holy sites this year to curb the spread of Covid-19.
An electronic platform was launched three years ago in co-operation with the WHO to efficiently track any reported cases of infectious diseases in Makkah, said Dr Jokhdar. This system is still operational and will be used to track Covid-19 infections this year as well.
“The kingdom’s track record speaks for itself. In the past two and half decades, we have not recorded a single case of epidemic-related diseases among pilgrims who visit Makkah. We have always implemented the strictest health measures,” he said.
All pilgrims this year between the ages of 18 and 65 must be fully vaccinated with a Saudi-recognised vaccine.
Pilgrims who suffer from chronic illnesses that might cause serious health complications if they get infected with coronavirus have also been banned from performing Hajj this year, said Dr Jokhdar.
“We have new protocols for every stage of the pilgrims’ journey, from when they get off the plane, to when they visit the holy sites and in their residences,” said Dr Jokhdar.
He said this year, pilgrims will also be divided into fixed groups that will take turns visiting the various holy sites of Makkah.
Each group will be assigned a Saudi health official who will monitor members throughout the six days of Hajj and promptly handle any infections, suspected or confirmed.
Dr Jokhdar explains that this new system will make isolation and containment much more efficient.
At the conference, Dr Ahmed El Mandhari, the regional director of WHO EMRO announced that 17 countries in the region have registered confirmed cases of the alpha variant, 11 countries have reported the beta variant, three countries have gamma cases and seven have reported the delta variant.