On Sunday 21 June, Saudi Arabia ended a nationwide coronavirus curfew, lifting restrictions on businesses. This includes hair salons and cinemas, after three months of very tight restrictions. Prayers have been allowed to resume in mosques in Mecca, in preparation for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which is due to begin in a few weeks at the end of July. Authorities have yet to announce if this year’s Hajj will proceed as usual, but have advised Muslims to defer preparations. Last year, around 2.5 million Muslims travelled to Saudi Arabia to participate in the Hajj. It is a requirement of the faith that Muslims perform the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime if able to do so. International flights and religious pilgrimages are suspended, and social gatherings of greater than 50 people are also prohibited. The year-round Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina is also to remain suspended, in order to help prevent coronavirus from spreading in Islam’s holiest cities. The response to coronavirus in Saudi Arabia was swift, barring Muslims from daily prayers within mosques, placing most major cities under 24-hour lockdowns, and closing most public places. However, of late, these restrictions have been slowly lifted, and as of Sunday, have been completely lifted.
The Kingdom has had the highest reported coronavirus infections in the Gulf, and has seen a spike in cases after beginning the phased easing of stringent lockdown measures in late May. Although coronavirus cases began falling in late May and early June, cases began rising again in late June, and on Sunday, the total number of infections rose to 157,612. The death toll rose to 1,267, according to data from the health ministry. Deaths have risen consistently. Intensive care units in the capital of Riyadh and the city of Jeddah are crowded with coronavirus patients and are putting pressure on the healthcare system, according to medical sources. However, the decision arises from the Kingdom’s worst economic crisis in decades, as the impact of the virus has combined with low oil prices.
Saudi Arabia needs to completely halt its reopening. The state is rushing forward with reopening despite the spike in coronavirus infections and the consistent rise in the death toll. Rather than reading the signs of the pandemic and maintaining the apparently successful curfew for just a little bit longer, in order to better protect its citizens, the government has chosen the economy over its citizens and will continue to reopen in order to continue to succeed in that regard, no matter the economic toll it will take.
To add insult to injury, these decisions imply that specific cities are being prioritized, like Mecca and Medina, as indicated earlier by the suspension of certain religious pilgrimages. While protecting these holy cities is extremely important to the maintenance of the Islam religion, and these barriers should remain in place in order to continue to protect the country and its citizens, protecting the followers of Islam within Saudi Arabia remains just as important. It is hard to watch as cities like Riyadh and Jeddah find themselves barely able to cope with the number of coronavirus patients in the system.
Despite clear evidence of the danger of the situation, the government of Saudi Arabia is going forward with the lifting of restrictions on the country in order to boost its economy after its downturn due to the pandemic. Countries must begin to more closely examine the health situation that they are in before lifting their lockdowns and curfews. In turn, the death toll from coronavirus could easily be halted or lessened, thus placing the lives of their citizens above their economies.