As the executive board of the Gulf Cooperation Council convenes in Riyadh to discuss the Gulf region’s response to the threat of Ebola, Saudi Arabia had taken the pre-emptive action of ruling out the issue of Hajj visas to pilgrims from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
This year, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health has declared that it will not issue visas to pilgrims for this year’s Umrah and Hajj season from the three West African countries where the Ebola outbreak is most prevalent, while at this time it is still studying the situation in Nigeria pending a decision.
The Kingdom has also heightened pre-cautionary measures at its borders and ports, with the Ministry of Health’s Khalid Marghalani noting, “We have communicated instructions to officials at all ports of entry, and trained personnel on how to identify and deal with Ebola cases, should they arise.”
The decision on whether or not to ban certain countries from the Hajj is not just a politically thorny issue for Saudi Arabia, but as one field study showed, also one with considerable economic ramifications, as the value of activities related to the pilgrimage can exceed $30bn.
In 2013, Hajj attendance was already lower due to the MERS virus, with a total of just over two million Saudi and foreign pilgrims, compared with what had been a steady increase in the number of visitors in the years leading up to 2012, which exceeded three million pilgrims.
Saudi Arabia receives no direct flights from the three West African countries except during the Hajj season, when one-off routes are chartered with carriers just for the occasion.
Other airlines, such as Arik Air, the largest airline operator in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, and Togo’s ASKY Airlines, have already cut flights to the affected countries, and Emirates Airline, the Gulf’s leading carrier, has cancelled all flights to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, until further notice.
The government of Guinea has also closed the nation’sborders with Sierra Leone and Liberia after consultations with the other two countries – addressing the cross-border trade that was highlighted one of the three main factors driving the spread of the disease by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – though the move also risks prompting food shortages.
A certain amount of controversy has been created over the treatment of two American medical workers and a Spanish priest with an experimental anti-viral serum called ZMapp that has only previously been tested under laboratory conditions, and never before on humans.
The WHO has also convened a panel of experts to discuss whether experimental drugs should be deployed, though the US biotech firm that makes ZMapp has also exhausted its current supply after sending 12 further samples to Liberia for the treatment of African medical professionals.
The current outbreak of Ebola has affected more people than at any other time since virus was first identified in 1976, and with an estimated 1,800 infected and 960 dead, according to figures from the Centre for Disease Control, dwarfs the largest previous outbreak at 425 people.