By Ibrahim Muhammed
Hajj 2020 opened and closed its wing in a flash with a unique operating system that had not been witnessed before. It was a hajj undertaken with COVID 19 complaint model of arrangement. Every segment of hajj services delivery was altered, and that presents us with fresh challenges that must be reviewed before we can create new operational guidelines for Hajj 2021.
Meanwhile, NAHCON has set 9th of September for the commencement of Hajj 2021 registrations. Registration of intending pilgrims signals the commencement of preparations for the next year hajj. What are the issues that should form part of pilgrim’s registration guidelines?
Will Saudi Arabia adopt or retain the Hajj 2020 COVID 10 protocols for Hajj 2021? Will there be an amendment or are we likely to revert to pre-COVID 19 Hajj guidelines? Our ability to projects and creates a flexible plan will allow NAHCON and States Muslim Pilgrims Boards to fashion pilgrims education and enlightenment program. This piece is an attempt to bring the future into the present so that the present will not be surprised by the future.
Vaccine or no vaccine, COVID 19 precautions and protocol will be observed during Hajj 2021. The reduced quota system will still be maintained and for Hajj 2021, it will be between a maximum of 50% and possibly below (depending on the situation of COVID 19 in Saudi Arabia) There is a possibility that the door of Umrah will be opened this month and whatever conditions, and operational guidelines adopted therein can be taken as ‘things to come’ as far as Hajj 2021 is concerned.
However, Pilgrims registrations and documentations, intending pilgrims’ enlightenment and educations cannot be on hibernation especially now that NAHCON has set September 9 as the date of commencement of pilgrims’ registrations.
Before Pilgrims registration guidelines, we must put the under-listed Hajj 2020 protocols into considerations. There may be little or no alteration depending on the availability of unified accepted vaccines and the ratio of COVID 19 cases in the Kingdom before hajj 2021.
During Hajj 2020, intending pilgrims aged between 20 and 65 without chronic illnesses were required to apply online. Each pilgrim was subjected to health checkups and PCR test, followed by a 7-day home quarantine. Pilgrims were then transported to Mecca and quarantined for a further three days, followed by a second PCR test. Only those that were tested negative the second time that were allowed to perform hajj.
NAHCON should key in into these pilgrim registrations guidelines with a little amendment. Pilgrims within the age of 20-65 without chronic illness for now. States pilgrim’s board that has registered above 50% of their original Hajj 2020 quota should adopt the new policy as a pre-condition for Hajj 2021 registration.
NAHCON and States Muslim Pilgrims Boards should introduce a legally binding agreement to be signed by intending pilgrims. For example, That registration can be considered valid only IF Saudi Arabia announced 50% Hajj quota Nigeria in2021. This will serve as insurance for the rollover pilgrims in the event of 20 or 10% hajj quota because the rollover pilgrims are within this range.
Pilgrims registration should be tagged incomplete without a PCR Test with a negative result. That intending pilgrim (whether pre-Hajj 2020 or post-Hajj 2020 candidates) must attend pilgrims enlightenment and education before they can be considered; that amount deposited by each pilgrim is termed as ‘initial deposit subject to the official announcement of Hajj fare” To avoid rollover trouble, NAHCON needs to oversee States Muslim pilgrims’ board on the number of pilgrims that were rolled over from each state, and whether pilgrims that applied for refunds have been refunded. It will be wrong for us to begin new registration without drawing the curtain on Hajj 2020 registration. NAHCON, States Muslim Pilgrims Boards and Tour Operators should reconcile to know the exact number of pilgrims that rolled over to 2021.
Hajj Saving Scheme to the rescue
Indeed, NAHCON Chairman Zikrullah Kunle Hassan and his management team must be commended for proactively engaging stakeholders on ways of activating the Hajj Saving Scheme to solve the inherent timeliness of financial difficulties in Hajj activities.
In reality, the current socio-economic challenges have made it difficult for most Nigerians to raise funds in one tranche towards performing Hajj. The scheme will provide a convenient method of payment for Hajj and allow people to build-up funds overtime. NAHCON should lace its drive with mass education and enlightenment. HSS is the best and more secure system for savers especially pilgrims as against the traditional risk-prone system of savings. It is a public service and the general public should be educated on its benefit. As stressed by NAHCON Chairman, HSS will empower pilgrims and makes Hajj affordable to them and creates mutual benefits for both Hajj bodies and pilgrims.
Pilgrims Education and Enlightenment
Here comes the ‘new normal’. Both the old and the new intending pilgrims will have to be educated and enlightened on the ‘new normal’ in hajj operations. From quarantine and re-quarantine, mandatory PCR test and random tests, the law of social distance, emerging airport protocols, COVID decree pilgrim’s accommodations spacing, one passenger free seat pilgrim’s bus rule, possible two or more story tents in Mina with more space and of course the possibility of “pay as you are served” – that means pilgrims may pay more. If hajj 2020 is decreased to 50% quota, there will be additional costs in flights, pilgrims’ buses, and accommodation because these services will also apply health protocols by reducing capacity. I didn’t say an increase in Hajj fare per se, a ‘term’ average intending pilgrims may not like to hear. Remember that the above analysis does not factor the current exchange rate of naira to a dollar and the possibility of Saudi Arabia introducing additional health-related payable services.
Honestly, I hope that additional 7 or fewer days’ pre and post hajj quarantine will not be added in 2021 and that GACA will amend pilgrims airlift instructions guidelines before the D-day otherwise, we might spend more days in Saudi Arabia than we envisaged.
This year, Saudi Arabia distributed certified anti-insect IHRAM free of charge to male Pilgrims. The Ihram is produced in Saudi Arabia and therefore, pilgrims may not be allowed to enter the Kingdom with IHRAM or purchase one at the road shops. In the absence of a clear road-map to Hajj 2021, the best we can do is to use Hajj 2020 as a ticket to board the flight of Hajj 2021 with a room for adjustments whenever the needs arise.