Saudi Arabia struggles to contain Covid-19 epidemic in Islam's holiest city

RIAD: Saudi authorities are competing to contain an outbreak of coronavirus in the Islamic holy city of, where overcrowded slums and labor camps accelerated the spread even with much of the country under a 24-hour curfew.

The total number of coronavirus cases reported in Mecca, home to 2 million people, reached 1,050 on Monday compared to 1,422 in the capital of Riyadh, a city more than triple the size. The large number of undocumented immigrants and tight housing for migrant workers in Mecca has made it difficult to decrease the infection rate.

In late March, after five employees of the Mecca-based Saudi Binladin Group, one of the kingdom's largest construction companies, tested positive, authorities closed houses for 8,000 workers and suspended work on the expansion of the grand mosque, Islam The holiest site, according to a document seen by Bloomberg. Some workers were quarantined from the hotel, according to the document. The company did not respond to a request for comment. It was unclear if the camp was still closed.

Protecting Mecca from a pandemic that overwhelms countries like Italy and the United States is crucial to Saudi Arabia . That’s partly because of the city’s significance to the world’s Muslims, but also because the royal family grounds its rule in guardianship of the birthplace of Islam . Millions of Muslim pilgrims visit Mecca each year; ’s official title is "custodian of the two holy mosques.”

The government is aware that the virus ravaging Mecca would cast doubt on its responsibility to protect those spaces, which is part of the legitimacy of the country itself, said Yasmine Farouk, a visiting member of the Middle East Program at Carnegie. Endowment for international peace. This is sensible.

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Role of foreigners

Overall, Saudi Arabia has reported one of the lowest rates of infection in the region, with around 5,000 cases in a population of over 30 million. Mecca was one of the first Saudi cities to be placed under a full-day curfew, and authorities took unprecedented precautions, suspending religious tourism in February and closing mosques across the country in March.

The outbreak highlights a national problem of growing cases among foreign residents. Foreigners make up about a third of the Saudi population, but account for between 70% and 80% of new cases recently, according to the Ministry of Health, a rate that has sparked debate about their role in society.

Some Saudis have attacked foreigners, accusing them of extortion of prices, spread of fear and deliberate spread of infections. Others say the solution lies in better living conditions for blue-collar foreigners who support daily life, drive garbage trucks, and clean the streets. Saudi novelist Mohammed Alwan recently wrote on Twitter that he expects authorities to create human requirements for workers' housing after the pandemic.

Health Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah acknowledged the problem in a televised speech on Monday, saying a government committee had been formed to deal with the issue.

The government has also promised free coronavirus treatment for foreign residents, including undocumented immigrants.