Coronavirus Threatens Hajj 2020 Pilgrimage As Saudi Arabia Suspends Travel to Mecca

Saudia Arabia has temporarily banned foreigners from entering Mecca and Medina, two of Islam's holiest pilgrimage sites, in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The virus has infected more than 220 people in the Middle East, with at least 26 deaths reported in Iran—the highest death toll outside China.

The foreign ministry of Saudi Arabia announced on Thursday it is taking "proactive preventive measures to prevent the arrival of the new coronavirus."

The deadly virus, which was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, has infected at least 81,109 people globally, around 78,191 of whom are in China. There have been at least 2,718 deaths reported in the country, according to a February 26 report by the World Health Organization (WHO).

There have been more than 2,800 deaths from the virus reported across nearly 50 countries, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University.

The Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement posted on its official Twitter account that the country will be "suspending entry to the Kingdom for the purpose of Umrah [a pilgrimage to Mecca] and visiting the Prophet's Mosque temporarily" and "suspending entry to the Kingdom with tourist visas from those coming from countries in which the spread of the new Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a danger."

The ministry added that "these procedures are temporary and is subject to continuous evaluation by the competent authorities."

Muslims around the world travel to Mecca for an Umrah pilgrimage throughout the year or a Hajj pilgrimage in the last month of the Islamic calendar (which this year takes place from the end of July to early August on the Gregorian calendar).

The holy city is home to the Great Mosque, the world's largest mosque, while the city of Medina, houses the Prophet's Mosque, the second holiest Islamic site in the world after the Great Mosque.

"Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus and urges its citizens to exercise caution before traveling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks," the ministry said in a statement, Al Jazeera reports.

The move by the Saudi government is the latest drastic measure taken by countries in the Middle East following the recent spread of the coronavirus in Iran, which has become the epicenter of the outbreak in the region.

Iran has reported 26 deaths, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University. There are reportedly around 141 confirmed cases of the virus in Iran, according to Iran's IRNA news agency.

WHO also confirmed the virus has spread to Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman, while two cases have also been reported in Lebanon, along with two in Israel, and six patients have been confirmed in Iraq, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The Great Mosque, Mecca, Saudi Arabia 2005
Muslim pilgrims praying at Mecca's Grand Mosque during the annual hajj rituals January 17, 2005 in Saudi Arabia. Getty Images

The outbreak has caused a wave of fear across the region, including in Iraq which has banned the entry of travelers from China, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, and Italy, as well as anyone coming from Kuwait and Bahrain, the country's health minister confirmed.

The Qatari government ordered the evacuation of all Qatari and Kuwaiti citizens in Iran, while Kuwait Airways is also planning to send a plane to evacuate its citizens in Italy, according to a post on its official Twitter account.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the spread of the COVID-19 virus as of February 27.

coronavirus map update cases worldwide
A map shows where cases of the new coronavirus have been confirmed around the world. Statista