Saudi Arabia has suspended arrivals by foreign pilgrims and tourists from some two dozen countries where the COVID-19 coronavirus has spread, as a growing number of cases deepened fears of a pandemic.
- The ban is set to disrupt the travel plans of many Muslims ahead of Ramadan in April
- It was unclear if the major Hajj pilgrimage, set to begin in late July, would be impacted
- All schools in Japan will be asked to close from March 2
The decision comes ahead of the holy fasting of Ramadan, which begins in late April, when visits by Muslims to the kingdom accelerate.
More than 7.5 million people performed the minor Umrah pilgrimage — which can be taken at any time of year — in the birthplace of Islam throughout 2019, according to official figures.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have not reported any coronavirus cases, but the other four Gulf Arab states have.
The virus has infected about 80,000 people worldwide and killed more than 2,800, the majority in China where the outbreak began in late 2019.
On Wednesday, the number of new infections inside China was for the first time overtaken by new cases elsewhere, with Italy and Iran emerging as epicentres of the illness.
Iran has introduced new measures to combat the spread, including cancelling the main religious sermon on Friday in Tehran, and banning Chinese citizens from visiting the country.
A total of 26 people have died so far in Iran — the highest death toll outside China — and there are now some 245 people infected.
Among those infected, state media reported, is Iranian Vice-President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as spokeswoman “Mary” for the 1979 hostage-takers who seized the US Embassy in Tehran and sparked the 444-day diplomatic crisis.
Kuwait and Bahrain recorded more cases on Thursday, all involving people who had been in Iran, to bring their totals to 43 and 33, respectively.
Oman has diagnosed four cases and the United Arab Emirates, a main air transit hub, has reported 13 cases.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation, said on Thursday (local time) it would be a “fatal mistake” for any country to assume it would not be hit by the new coronavirus.
“No country should assume it won’t get cases, that would be a fatal mistake, quite literally,” he said.
“If you take Italy, a member of the G7, it was really a surprise.
“So even many other developed countries … should expect some surprises.”
Dr Tedros said epidemics in Iran, Italy and South Korea were at a “decisive point” — still marked by clusters of infections with some transmission in communities, but not yet by sustained community transmission.
‘It’s a blessing from the Almighty’
Pilgrimage is big business for Saudi Arabia, which hosts the two holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina, and is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious economic reform agenda.
Some 2 million people are expected in late July for the week-long Hajj pilgrimage, the world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims.
The Saudi foreign ministry said the suspensions were temporary but provided no timeframe. It was unclear if the Hajj pilgrimage would be impacted.
Indonesia’s foreign minister has urged Saudi Arabia to allow its citizens to continue their Umrah pilgrimage after hundreds were stranded at Jakarta airport.
Indonesia is the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country and sends around 1 million pilgrims to Saudi Arabia every year.
“The immediacy of this will impact our citizens because at the time of the announcement, there are Indonesian citizens or maybe citizens of other countries who have flown there,” Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, told reporters on Thursday.
Joko Asmoro, of the Association of Muslim Hajj and Umrah Organisers, said 150,000 to 200,000 Indonesian pilgrims could be affected by the suspension during the next month.
In Indonesia, Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto defended the country’s screening process for coronavirus on Thursday and said the absence of confirmed cases in the world’s fourth-most populous nation was a “blessing from the Almighty”.
The sprawling South-East Asian country of more than 260 million people has not recorded any cases, though some of its citizens overseas have contracted the virus, including eight crew on the Diamond Princess cruise liner off Japan’s Yokohama.
Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in the United States, said in a study this month that Indonesia should strengthen outbreak surveillance and control — especially as it had direct flights from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.
The Harvard team said Indonesia’s lack of confirmed cases “may suggest the potential for undetected cases”.
California monitoring 8,400 potential cases
California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Thursday that health officials are monitoring 8,400 people for coronavirus symptoms after they arrived in the state from domestic commercial flights.
The state currently has only about 200 test kits, an “inadequate” number, but has been in “constant contact with federal agencies” that will be sending a significant number of new test kits in coming days, Governor Newsom said.
His comments come as state health authorities confirmed what may be the first case of coronavirus in the United States that has no known connection to overseas travel.
California officials said the person is a resident of Solano County, northeast of San Francisco, and is getting medical care in Sacramento County. They said they have begun the process of tracking down people who the patient has been in contact with, a process known as contact tracing.
The patient was brought to UC Davis Medical Center from another Northern California hospital on February 19 but it was four days before the CDC heeded a request to test the patient for COVID-19, according to an email sent to employees on Wednesday by the hospital’s interim CEO, Brad Simmons, and David Lubarsky, CEO of UC Davis Health.
The patient arrived on a ventilator and special protection orders were issued “because of an undiagnosed and suspected viral condition,” according to the email sent to employees.
The hospital asked the CDC to test for the coronavirus but testing was delayed until Sunday “since the patient did not fit the existing CDC criteria for COVID-19,” the email said.
With California concerned about that many cases the tech industry has also been hit with Facebook cancelling its annual conference for developers, F8.
The show is usually held in late April or early May in the San Francisco area. The company says it is planning other ways for its developer community to get together, including live streams, locally hosted events and videos. More than 5,000 people from around the world attended last year’s F8.
Abe orders all Japanese schools to close
Japan’s entire school system, from elementary to high schools, will be asked to close from March 2 until their upcoming spring break late in the month to help contain the coronavirus outbreak, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Thursday.
The dramatic escalation of Japan’s fight against the virus followed rising criticism of what has been seen as a lukewarm government response.
“This coming week or two are an extremely important period,” Mr Abe told a coronavirus task force.
“Prioritising children health and safety above everything else, we will ask all the elementary, junior high and high schools across Japan to temporarily close from March 2 to spring break.”
The Japanese school year ends in March.
Meanwhile, a Japanese woman working as a tour bus guide tested positive for the coronavirus for a second time, having suffered from the virus previously and recovered, Osaka’s prefectural government said.
Her case, the first known sufferer in Japan, highlighted how much is still unknown about the virus.
The number of cases in Japan rose on Thursday to more than 200, up from the official tally of 186 late on Wednesday.
On the main northern island of Hokkaido, 15 new cases, including two children under the age of 10, were confirmed.
The Government has urged that big gatherings and sports events be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to contain the virus while pledging that the 2020 Summer Olympics will go ahead in Tokyo.
Northern Ireland records first case as Europe beefs up bans
Northern Ireland authorities have confirmed their first case of coronavirus, with the British region’s chief medical officer Michael McBride telling media that the patient had travelled from Italy via Dublin.
The case is in addition to the 15 cases confirmed in the United Kingdom by England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty earlier on Thursday.
That news comes as countries around Europe have increased measures to attempt to prevent the spread of the virus.
Germany is trying to retroactively track down everyone who may have been exposed to an infected individual, by introducing airport landing cards for passengers arriving from the countries hit hardest by the virus.
The procedure started with China but has been expanded to include South Korea, Iran, Japan and Italy.
Slovakia is checking cars coming from Austria and everyone on flights into its three airports.
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