MUMBAI - The Haj Committee of India has not received official communication from Saudi authorities about mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for pilgrims but it expects them to be vaccinated in time for the pilgrimage that starts around mid-July.
Saudi newspaper Okaz reported on March 1 that COVID-19 vaccination is compulsory for all pilgrims to get the haj visa this year, citing a Ministry of Health circular signed by the health minister.
India’s Haj Committee and private tour operators told Salaam Gateway the government assured them that all pilgrims will be vaccinated if indeed the Saudi government makes vaccination mandatory.
“We appreciate it. We think it is a positive step towards the happening of the haj,” said the Committee’s CEO Dr. Maqsood Ahmed Khan.
“But, unless and until we receive any written communication as a protocol of the haj that every haji is required to take a vaccination, we cannot approach our Health Ministry for the vaccine.”
However, he added there will be no issue getting the vaccination done in time. “The responsible authorities in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare have already promised us that if such protocol or requirement is there, they will definitely give the vaccines to pilgrims.”
Officials from Indonesia, the biggest source country for pilgrims, told Salaam Gateway earlier this month they are moving all prospective haj travellers to the front of the national vaccination line.
It is still unclear how many pilgrims will be able to perform this year’s haj as Saudi Arabia is yet to make any formal announcements.
India is home to over 200 million Muslims and is one of the largest source countries for pilgrims, with some 200,000 performing haj in 2019.
“What we know as of now is that haj will hopefully happen this year but how many pilgrims will be allowed or what percentage of the quota will be allotted to each country is not known yet,” said Shoukat Ibrahim Tamboli, chairman of All India Haj Umrah Tour Organisers Association (AIHUTOA), an umbrella body of private tour operators.
He said getting COVID-19 jabs won’t be an issue, citing the example of the government of India making arrangements to give free vaccines to all pilgrims during outbreaks of cholera.
India has been among the hardest-hit countries in terms of the number of confirmed coronavirus cases (11.35 million) and deaths (158,607) as of March 14.
The country has already administered over 29 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines as of March 14 and is speeding up its vaccination drive from the current 2 million doses per day to 5 million; over 3 million were administered on Monday (March 15), according to the minister of health Dr. Harsh Vardhan.
— Dr Harsh Vardhan (@drharshvardhan) March 16, 2021
🔶 Over 3.29 crore Vaccine Doses administered across the country
🔷 Highest coverage in a Single Day with over 3 million vaccinations yesterday
🔶 More than 1 crore beneficiaries aged over 60 years covered in just 15 days#VaccineAppropriateBehavior pic.twitter.com/ZvNBkbHndl
“I don’t think the government will have any difficulties in giving vaccines to pilgrims who would be around 150,000-200,000 if you take previous year’s numbers although it is expected to be low this year,” said Tamboli.
He said some countries may face the issue of vaccines availability but India doesn’t have any supply constraints.
India’s Muslims, like other citizens, will get their jabs regardless of whether they are going on haj or not, as part of the government’s vaccination drive.
The country started its first round of vaccinations on January 16 for healthcare workers. Now on the second phase, the government expects to vaccinate 100 million people across the country, covering those over 60 and above 45 years of age with co-morbidities. In the third phase, people above 50 are expected to be covered.
As all residents above 50 years of age are expected to be vaccinated from the next phase, Dr. Khan points out that many pilgrims will be covered anyway.
“The Health Ministry earlier in the meeting already told us that hajis whose age is above 50 will anyway come under the cover but they will still prioritise the hajis in this case.
“But for the vaccination of any persons below 50 years, they need a protocol from the Saudi government,” he said.
The Haj Committee is waiting for the official declaration of pilgrim quota, bilateral agreement and the protocol from the Saudi government, all of which were supposed to be done in November.
“We will be happy to send whatever number of pilgrims Saudi tells us to send. If they say that bring your 200,000 hajis with vaccination, we will do that…if they say that 50,000, we will do that,” he said.
India was scheduled to send 175,000 pilgrims last year, of which 50,000 were meant to go through private tour operators and the rest through the Haj Committee.
Due to the pandemic, Saudi authorities held a dramatically scaled-down haj last year, only allowing about 1,000 pilgrims already residing in the Kingdom to perform the pilgrimage.
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