By DR. Ibrahim Kana
No doubt Makkah, Madinah and Jeddah have not been the same with the absence of Hustle and bustle of pilgrims, and in particular Nigerian pilgrims. No thanks to the Global Pandemic of the ravaging Corona Virus, nicknamed Covid-19 (C-19). Who would ever think that such a tiny microorganism can render the Kaaba free from human beings for a minute? Unfortunately, it is happening in our lifetime. The same C-19 ostensibly forced the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to restrict the participation in the 2020 Hajj to select few, who are resident in the Kingdom. Even at that, the pilgrims were subjected to all the rigors of C-19 protocols, including regular screening, social distancing and ensuring they are all C-19 negative. Welcome to the new era and the new norms.
This article is the first in a series of reports I would be dishing out to our esteemed readers, under the Hajj Medics on Hajj Reporters. I invite you to continue to keep a date with me as I dispense doses of medical and health information in an ala carte form. No doubt this edition and the next few editions would be focusing on C-19, because the virus is indeed standing in our way to regularly perform Umrah and the annual Hajj pilgrimage. I will make effort to ensure that we present to you current information regarding the performance of Umrah and subsequently Hajj, from the health perspective. Periodically, we shall share with you latest health regulations as well as advice to Nigerian pilgrims.
The title for this edition is on the plight of Nigerian pilgrims under the shadows of C-19. Alhamdulillah, with the declining number of cases of C-19 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Centre for Mass Gatherings Medicines situated within the Ministry of Health of KSA, in Riyadh, has therefore continued to review the threat levels of the pandemic, in relation to allowing foreign pilgrims perform Umrah. As it is, the WHO Global Centre conducted an early Risk Assessment where the threat level is considered moderate, hence informed the KSA authorities to allow a phased approach, beginning with locals, then few internationals.
So far, so good. Of course, the international trial was conducted on countries considered to have a significant pilgrims population as well as modest level of organization with disciplined pilgrims. Nigeria is still on the queue, and hope to join soon when this phase is concluded, and uneventful. Indeed, the number of pilgrims and countries will continue to escalate. This situation further calls for increased awareness and education amongst Nigerian pilgrims, as we hope that Nigeria would be amongst the next and subsequent batches for Umrah. Indeed we hope the pandemic would be under absolute control by the time of 2021 Hajj, so we can all be part of the Journey of a life time.
New health-related Umrah Measures
As part of the C-19 measures, the barricade placed around the Kaaba and the holy Black Stone will remain in its place and visitors will be prevented from touching them. Similarly, Masjid al-Haram, where the Kaaba is located, will be disinfected 10 times a day, and quarantine rooms are already prepared for visitors showing symptoms of C-19. In addition, disinfectant spray tunnels have been installed in the limited entry points into both Makkah and Madinah Harams. These simple but very important measures are expected to reduce the spread of the virus, in case of any pilgrim who was tested C-19 false negative. I should not forget to mention that ALL pilgrims coming for Umrah MUST be C-19 negative. Plans are on the way, as an additional measure to conduct C-19 tests at the airport on arrival. No doubt, pilgrims should expect huge protocol changes especially in the King Abdulaziz Airport, Jeddah.
Risk for pilgrims
COVID-19 is a respiratory infection which is spread by droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Your risk of being exposed to C-19 during travel relates to the number of C-19 cases in the KSA, your means of travel (exposure in the aircraft and transit airports etc) and your activities within the KSA. No doubt, this is not the time for any pilgrim to engage in unnecessary malingering or normal shopping. The more you stay indoors the less exposed you would be, with a higher chance of returning home C-19 negative.
Travel Advisory for all intending Umrah pilgrims and Travel Agencies
Before you travel
Unlike in the past where pilgrims pick up their baggage and board the next flight, the moment their visas are issued. With the new norm in the world, you should not proceed with travel if you are already feeling unwell. Even if your symptoms are not related to C-19, you will increase your risk of either being denied boarding; or being quarantined if your illness is detected during your flight, at entry or exit screening at airports, or even at any point in time you are found to be sick. Besides increased cost for you, the economic consequence of your time wasted may not easily be quantifiable. I must emphasize here that these are not the best of times for those considered high risk, such as the weak, the elderly and sufferers of chronic illnesses like cancer, uncontrolled diabetes mellitus, Immunosuppressive illnesses like AIDS, to embark on Umrah. Please shelve the idea! Once the C-19 vaccine is released, get yourself a jab before traveling; am sure Nigerian Health Ministry will ensure that Pilgrims receive the first call for the shot.
It is important to check with your travel agent or travel company ahead of planned travel what precautionary measures they have implemented including physical distancing, face coverings and additional hygiene measures, and consider how these will affect you. These measures may include fewer people being able to travel on aircraft, buses or trains at any one time, and crowd control in transport hubs and airports. These measures are particularly important considering the fact that most Nigerian pilgrims commute via Cairo, Addis Ababa, Dubai and Doha.
You should expect delays and therefore be prepared to queue or take different routes in and around stations and airports to comply with physical distancing measures. Shops and restaurants in airports and transport hubs (eg Miqat) may not be operating as normal or may have restrictions in place. Similarly, food and drinks may not be available to purchase onboard aircraft or other public transport during your trip. Therefore, consider how these may impact your trip.
Reducing your risk of exposure to COVID-19
Simple measures will help reduce your risk of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) during your trip.
Wear a Mask
• Always wear a mask when in crowded places or outdoors! Wearing a face mask or covering is mandatory in KSA when in public. So, take your masks along with you.
Try to maintain physical distancing(1-2 meters) from others as much as possible. This is already instituted within the Holy sites.
• Avoid spending time in crowded public areas and enclosed spaces, including elevators as much as practically possible. You should comply with KSA guidance on
• Avoid the use of indoor gyms, swimming pools or exercise areas if physical distancing and hygiene measures are not in place. This is particularly important for Nigerians who choose to leisure in Jeddah or Dubai after the pilgrimage.
• Only visit restaurants, if physical distancing is maintained. Consider using room service, or purchase take-away meals to eat in your room or other non-crowded areas.
You should pay strict attention to personal hygiene:
• Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds, particularly before eating and drinking, after being in public areas, using public transport and using the toilet.
• Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, containing at least 60% alcohol, for use when soap and water is not immediately available. Remember this should be 100mls or less to comply with airport liquid/gel restrictions. All these are readily available in the airports and Haram.
• Cover your coughs and sneezes with a disposable tissue and dispose of used tissues immediately in a waste bin. Where tissue is not available, cough into your flex elbows
• Purchase travel tickets online and use e-tickets and contactless payment where possible.
• Sanitise your tray table and armrests on public transportation with disinfectant wipes, remember to sanitise your hands afterwards.
Try to avoid:
• touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands
• sharing food, drinks and personal items such as mobile phones
• touching common surfaces such as handrails, elevator buttons and doorknobs as much as possible
You must isolate yourself immediately if you become unwell during your trip with symptoms such as:
• a high temperature
• a new persistent cough: remember that catarrh and cough are common during Hajj and Umrah, even without C-19
• a loss or change in taste or smell: this is very important.
If your symptoms become severe, you should seek medical advice as soon as possible. Follow the guidance of KSA public health authorities at all times to avoid spreading the virus.
After Travel: As you return to Nigeria
You should follow the latest Nigerian guidelines on measures you need to take upon your return to Nigeria, including instructions regarding self-isolation (quarantine). These include testing and obtaining a negative result done within 120 hours as at the time of boarding. Additionally, you are expected to pay for your post-arrival test and obtain a QR code before boarding. Take note that you are expected to isolate for seven days before taking the test while in Nigeria. However, as the pandemic pattern changes, these regulations will definitely change as well.
As we pray to Allah (SWT) for the quick end of this pandemic, worldwide, I call on all Nigerians to heed to the advisory of authorities at all times. We continue to pray to the Most High to completely obliterate this deadly virus from this world while granting humans ability to discover its cure.
Every travelling Nigerian Pilgrim owes Nigeria the duty to ensure they do not transport the C-19 back to Nigeria. Please make sure every laid down protocol and regulation is strictly adhered to.
DR. Ibrahim Kana, MBBS, FMCOph, PGDPA, Cert. Health Financing
Director/National Programme Manager,
Saving One Million Lives Programme for Results,
Federal Ministry of Health,
SOML-PforR……..Improving Health Outcome in Numbers