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Agencies
February 28, 2020

Saudi Arabia bans foreign pilgrims amid virus fears

Top Story

A
Agencies
February 28, 2020

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has banned foreign pilgrims from entering the kingdom to visit Islam’s holiest sites amid concerns over the coronavirus.

The ban potentially disrupts the plans of millions of people ahead of the holy month of Ramadan and as the Hajj pilgrimage looms. The decision showed the growing worry across the Middle East about the strain of coronavirus — also known as Covid-19 — as Iran confirmed that infected cases in the country spiked by over 100, to 254 now. A total of 26 people have died so far in Iran, the world’s highest death toll outside of China, where the outbreak began. Those with the virus in the Islamic Republic now include Iranian vice president Masoumeh Ebtekar, state media reported.

Saudi Arabia’s barring of pilgrims from Makkah and Medina appeared unprecedented in modern history. Authorities also suspended entry to travellers from nations affected by the virus who hold tourist visas for the kingdom.

The tiny, oil-rich nation of Kuwait announced a sudden jump to 43 cases from 26 on Thursday as well, all linked to travellers who recently came from Iran. 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 travelling 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.”

News of the cancellation has shocked the Muslim world. Hundreds landed in Pakistan as the ban came into effect, while Indonesia and Turkey had to turn away thousands of pilgrims set to fly. Authorities at Cairo’s international airport said the Saudi decision created “intense confusion” and “extreme anger” among thousands of passengers waiting for flights. Security officials needed to call in reinforcements to control the crowd as news of the ban broke.

Since the new coronavirus emerged in December in central China, there have been at least 82,000 cases globally, with more than 2,700 deaths.

The US and South Korea on Thursday postponed forthcoming joint military exercises because of the outbreak, while Japan’s prime minister called for schools to close nationwide for several weeks.

President Emmanuel Macron said France, the world’s most visited country, was preparing for a jump in coronavirus cases. But President Donald Trump has played down fears of a major outbreak in the United States, the world’s largest economy. His comments contradicted US health officials who urged Americans to be ready to cancel mass gatherings and work from home. There are 60 cases in the US so far.