By Mohsin Tutla, Chairman, WHUC www.whucfoundation.org
March 21st 2020 was the day when the Islamic Calendar and the Gregorian Calendar witnessed the suspension of the Umrah pilgrimage. An entire generation accustomed to the knowledge that at any given point of time, Muslim’s are performing “Tawaf” around the “Kaabah” were left heartbroken.
Unimaginable scenes of a clear white marble floor centred around the iconic black cube “Al Kaabah”, were being broadcast across the globe. The black and white contrast of colours painfully etched in our minds, empty scenes that were never imagined, deemed impossible, prior to Covid-19 were being canvased across television screens around the world.
The desolate mataf grounds could aptly describe the feeling held in the hearts of more than a billion people living on planet Earth. The infamous coinage of “New Normal” was met by unprecedented resistance, where humanity as individuals, societies and nations challenge Covid-19 impositions with great determination, desperately wanting life to resume to the normal we once cherished and knew.
History has now marked BC and AC with new meanings “Before Corona” and “After Corona”. It has been 578 days since Masjid Al Haram welcomed people through its golden gates in droves and without social distancing restrictions.
Read Also: Restrictions on Umrah, prayers in Rawdah lifted
The significance of Covid-19 restriction easement within the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah is joyfully being celebrated around the universe, it could be said by the angels who always continued to circle the Kaabah and by Muslims who can now freely re-join and circle the Kaabah as an act of devout worship and pilgrims fulfilling the rights and observing the acts of Umrah.
The good news of open doors was granted from the 17th of October 2021, preceding a very significant day on the Islamic Calendar, “The birth of Islam’s greatest beacon of light, the final prophet, Muhammad Ibn Abdallah, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him”. On the 18th of October 2021, thousands of Muslims from around the world visited the two holy mosques, celebrating and appreciating the opportunity to freely visit Masjid Al Haram and Masjid An Nabawi without social distance restrictions and to contemplate the blessing of the noblest birth recorded in Islamic history.
The World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation has played an instrumental role towards expediting the rejuvenation process of the pilgrimage to near normalcy and is pleased to report success. Working alongside hundreds of organisations across the globe and supporting the development of new health and safety protocols for pilgrimage under pandemic conditions.
Hope and optimism have been re-instated across the Hajj and Umrah sector, by a very significant appointment made by the Government of Saudi Arabia. The appointment of His Excellency Dr. Tawfiq Al Rabeah, former Saudi Ministry of Health as the new permanent Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah has been announced at a pivotal point in time, careful selection with seismic strategic considerations.
Prior to Covid 19, all operations related to Hajj and Umrah affairs were supervised under the mandate and jurisdiction of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, having their decisions supported by consulting ministries such as the Saudi Ministry of Health, Interior, National Security, Foreign Affairs, Religion and Information. In the wake of Covid 19, all operations of Hajj and Umrah were curtailed with pre-eminence on the subject being held and assigned to the Saudi Ministry of Health. For the first time, the Saudi Ministry of Health decisions held precedence over Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah decision on Hajj and Umrah affairs.
Health & Safety protocols set by the former Minister of Health, His Excellency Dr. Tawfiq Al Rabeah shall directly impact the policies outlined by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, for Hajj 2022. This transference of senior responsibility from the Saudi Ministry of Health to the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah signals forward-thinking and the level of importance that the Saudi Government places on re-instating the fullness of the institution of Hajj and Umrah, by re-assigning one of Saudi Arabia’s most successful, celebrated, pertinent Ministers to the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah.
The World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation looks forward to working with the new administration at the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, understanding their focus is being driven by compassionate leadership who shall consider Covid-19 health and safety measures as prominent influences when developing future policies.
The role of leadership is to ensure expectations are well tempered, whilst the decision to ease restrictions, permit entry into the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah without social distancing, free mobility and lifting restriction of stay durations, should be taken as a signal that the pandemic is over and its effects are any less detrimental to human health.
The facts remain that the Coronavirus can and has mutated converting into new strains, the efficacy rates of the vaccines are not 100%, not all human beings have been vaccinated, and people who have been vaccinated are still capable of being infected as well as becoming vessels of transferring the Covid-19 virus from one country to another and to another person.
The World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation in conjunction with medical and hajj and umrah professionals produced widely used health and safety guidelines for Hajj under pandemic conditions as well as the official Hajj Under Pandemic Conditions report, which is shared on www.whucfoundation.org for public view. The report identifies the markers, connoting the criteria upon which Hajj Under Pandemic Conditions would be deemed successful. Firstly, “Zero Covid-19 causal fatalities, during and after Hajj”, secondly, “Zero Covid-19 transference, prior, during and after Hajj”.
The ultimate responsibility of pilgrim welfare remains with the Saudi Government as the custodians of the two holy mosques and the hosts of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. However, there is a shared responsibility of symbiosis, whereby the international Hajj and Umrah community are required to raise to the challenge and ensure mechanisms are installed to guarantee pilgrim safety, such as the “Hajj and Umrah Safe Corridor” protocols also more commonly known as the “Bio-Bubble Safe Travel Corridor Solution”, developed by the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation and partners”.
The Tawakalna Application is an enabling system, that identifies pilgrim health status confirming wanting pilgrims are fully vaccinated with Covid-19 approved vaccines, Moderna, Astra-Zeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.
We are certainly on the “ROAD TO RESPONSIBLE RECOVERY OF THE HAJJ AND UMRAH PILGRIMAGES”, however, there remains a lot more to do. The Hajj and Umrah sectors preventative health risk measures are being observed by the international community and are a burgeoning expectation of the local population wanting to be kept safe during the pilgrimage process.
Being vaccinated address one of the two pilgrimage success criteria, “Zero Covid-19 causal fatalities during and after pilgrimage” and with the preventative measures in place for “Zero Covid-19 transference, prior, during, and after pilgrimage”, is a far greater challenge.
The World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation lauds the Saudi Government for demonstrating frugal leadership and courage. In March 2020, it required immense foresight and courage to suspend all Umrah performing activities with a sudden halt, whilst the spread was limited and possibility has continued the Umrah pilgrimage for a little while longer remained and taking the courageous decision on the 15th of October 2021 to de-restrict entry in the two holy mosques with the caveat of facemasks and vaccines only, and no social distancing requirements.
Victory, Hajj 2021 with the participation of 60,000 pilgrims officially reported “Zero Covid-19 fatalities”, and the contention of the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation is that the Saudi Authorities will be able to replicate these results again with the new proclamations and permissions.
However, consistent caution should not be replaced with false optimism and complacency, the pandemic still ensues, and prevailing facts still remain. To date, there are no vaccines that offer a 100% efficacy and protection rate against Covid-19. The Coronavirus family of strains have the capability to mutate and are transferable by people that are vaccinated and not vaccinated alike, the vaccinated population can still be infected.
There is a second caution, and that is one of moral responsibility, the risk of the Haramain hosting millions of pilgrims within confined spaces run the risk of becoming or being characterised as a potential epicentre, super-spreader and a re-distributor of Covid-19 and its variants. A lapse in upholding Covid-19 health and safety protocols can result in endangering both the local and international community, with the introductions of new restrictions and loss of the overjoyed recently gained privileges.
The forward-thinking of the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation and the collective efforts being made by and between the private sector and government agencies, working in tandem and collaboration is proving to be the new modus operandi, in combating the negative effects of Covid-19.
International Hajj for the year 2022 will be a reality; according to our internal assessment of the current circumstances, this evaluation can be substantiated by analysing the series of current positive decisions made by the Saudi Government, the issuance of a Royal Decree by His Majesty King Salman Bin Abdula Aziz Aal Saud, appointing the former Minister of Health to the post of Minister of Hajj and Umrah. Granting de-restricted entry to pilgrims with Covid-19 vaccinations and removal of social distancing measures within the Haramain.
Our confidence is further supported by the progress made in installing the Bio-Bubble Safe Travel Corridor (Hajj and Umrah Safe Corridor) mechanism, internationally. The WHUC Foundation enlisted medical facilities to provide geographic coverage of over 3,000 testing locations worldwide. The Hajj and Umrah Safe Corridor initiative has been significantly strengthened through the adoption of the Hajj and Umrah Standards Order (HUSO448801) Kitemark by Medical Facilities, Hotels, Drivers, Airports and Airlines. The new standards address key challenges in safely organising pilgrimage under pandemic conditions, consistently.
Saudi Arabia can be proud of their achievement, braving potential complications that may arise through the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, remaining confident that their preparations shall sufficiently safeguard pilgrims and visitors to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.
The ball is now in the court of the international community, to demonstrate measures they have introduced to ensure pilgrims travelling Saudi Arabia will be Covid-19 negative and vaccinated in accordance with the Saudi Ministry of Health regulations.
The World Hajj and Umrah Convention and its partners remain confident and committed towards installing safe travel mechanisms, capable of guaranteeing pilgrims travelling into Saudi Arabia shall remain Covid-19 negative from point of testing to point of arrival in Saudi Arabia. The first phase of the Hajj and Umrah Safe Corridor will be introduced to Ethiopia in early November followed by Nigeria.
Mohsin Tutla is the Chairman of the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation, www.whucfoundation.org