No pilgrimage to Mecca, Medina
Mideast reports over 200 confirmed cases; China warns of a rebound risk in nation's other regions
Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended visas for visits to Islam's holiest sites for the "umrah" pilgrimage, an unprecedented move triggered by Coronavirus (COVID-19) fears that raises questions over the annual hajj. The kingdom, which hosts millions of pilgrims every year in the cities of Mecca and Medina, also suspended visas for tourists from countries with reported infections as fears of a pandemic deepen.
Saudi Arabia, which so far has reported no cases of the virus but has expressed alarm over its spread in neighbouring countries, said the suspensions were temporary. But it provided no timeframe for when they will be lifted, and the decision left tens of thousands of pilgrims preparing to visit the kingdom from around the world in limbo. "The kingdom's government has decided to take the following precautions: suspending entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah and visit to the Prophet's mosque temporarily," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
"Suspending entry into the kingdom with tourist visas for those coming from countries in which the spread of the new Coronavirus is a danger." The measures comes amid a spike in Coronavirus cases across the Middle East. Since its outbreak, the United Arab Emirates has reported 13 Coronavirus cases, Kuwait has recorded 43, Bahrain has 33 and Oman is at four cases.
Iran has emerged as a major hotspot in the region, with 26 fatalities — the highest death toll outside China. While no cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia, one citizen is reported to be infected in Kuwait along with four Saudi women in Bahrain — all of whom had returned from Iran.
The umrah, which refers to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of year, attracts millions of devout Muslims from all over the globe each year.
A hajj travel association in Bangladesh said over 1,000 pilgrims, many with non-refundable tickets to Saudi Arabia, were "stranded at Dhaka airport" after being denied permission to board following Riyadh's abrupt announcement. Uncertainty loomed as some 10,000 visas have been issued for umrah and 137,000 people in Bangladesh have signed up for the annual hajj, it added.
In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, the decision to suspend visas could affect up to 200,000 pilgrims, the local association for hajj and umrah said.
There is still no clarity over how the Coronavirus will affect the hajj, due to start in late July.
"This move by Saudi Arabia is unprecedented," Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based risk consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates, told AFP. "The concern for Saudi authorities would be Ramadan, which starts at the end of April, and hajj afterwards, should the coronavirus become a pandemic." The holy fasting month of Ramadan is considered a favourable period by Muslim pilgrims to perform the umrah. Saudi Arabia's custodianship of Mecca and Medina — Islam's two holiest sites — is seen as the kingdom's most powerful source of political legitimacy.
Spike in cases in China
The virulence of the Coronavirus continues to show a declining trend in China which reported 29 new fatalities, the lowest in weeks, taking the death toll to 2,744 while the confirmed cases climbed to 78,497, officials said on Thursday.
The country's National Health Commission (NHC) said it received reports of 433 new confirmed cases as of Wednesday, up from 406 the day before. The Commission has warned that the virus could rebound in other regions of the country, Reuters reported.
Pak suspends flights to Iran
Pakistan on Thursday announced to suspend all flights to Iran, the new hotbed of Coronavirus epidemic, as authorities scrambled to screen hundreds of people who recently arrived from Tehran after two persons returning from the country tested positive for the deadly virus. The land and rail links with Iran, where the Coronavirus epidemic has claimed 26 lives and has infected 245 people, the highest outside China where COVID-19 originated, have already been snapped due to the scare of infection.
"Aviation Division has decided to cease all direct flights between Pakistan and Iran with effect from midnight between February 27 and 28 till further notice," Joint Secretary of Aviation Abdul Sattar Khokhar said.
'Existing antiviral drugs may help'
Already approved broad-spectrum antiviral drugs may offer a first-line treatment for the virus, according to a study unveiled on Thursday. Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology noted that there is no vaccine or cure in sight. They said these and other already tested "safe-in-man" broad-spectrum antiviral drugs are good candidates for treating the disease to start with, given that there are currently no treatments for the new coronavirus.
'Global GDP may take $250-bn hit'
The Coronavirus outbreak may negatively impact global growth by 30 basis points or $250 billion, industry body PHDCCI said on Thursday. PHDCCI President D K Aggarwal said disruptions in the global supply chains will not only hit China's exports but also the exports of the importing countries as they import a large chunk of raw materials and intermediate goods from China while exporting to other respective destinations. "At this juncture, we need to boost our domestic consumption demand and domestic capacities to mitigate the likely impact of coronavirus on global trade," said Aggarwal.
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