Health experts raise concerns on possible delayed vaccine rollout for pilgrims amid slower than expected NIP
by RAHIMI YUNUS / graphic by MZUKRI MOHAMAD
THE government may need to devise a special Covid-19 vaccination programme for haj pilgrims before the 1442H/2021M season begins in July should the immunisation be mandatory or risks leaving some of them without a complete vaccination.
Public health experts raised concerns that the vaccine rollout for haj pilgrims may fall behind amid the slower than expected National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme (NIP).
As it is, lack of details on the haj quota this year so far has added uncertainties to the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
“Haj pilgrims will not get inoculated on time unless we have a special programme for haj vaccination. But what is more important is to understand that haj pilgrims cover a wide range of demographic.
“The only way that this is possible is to have a special allocation specific for those selected for haj.
The numbers must be confirmed, recipients identified and a special vaccination for haj programme conducted,” International Islamic University Malaysia public health medicine specialist assistant professor Dr Mohammad Farhan Rusli told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).
For haj operators, Dr Mohammad Farhan said they can facilitate the process by ensuring that the selected pilgrims register and receive the immunisation at a set date.
He further said they must work with the federal government in ensuring the special allocation is obtained.
Malaysian Public Health Physicians Association president Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar concurred with Dr Mohammad Farhan, saying the haj vaccination is at risk of failure if no special programme is conducted.
“Lembaga Tabung Haji (TH) or the government should arrange a special vaccination for them similar to frontliners,” Dr Zainal Ariffin told TMR.
Meanwhile, TH ED for haj Datuk Seri Syed Saleh Syed Abdul Rahman said the institution has started the annual preparations for the 1442H/2021M haj season since last year.
“TH will continue to work with the Ministry of Health (MoH) in ensuring the prospective pilgrims comply with the vaccination programme as required by the health authorities,” Syed Saleh told TMR.
According to FAQ (frequently asked questions) on TH’s website, prospective haj pilgrims are prioritised in accordance with the list approved in the year 1441H for the 1442H haj season, based on the date and time of haj registration, if the quota is reduced.
Besides that, it said all haj appeals will be evaluated according to the merits set with priority to mahram appeals.
TH and the MoH have developed a number of standard operating procedures (SOPs) in the homeland and the Holy Land to be followed by every pilgrim and the official Malaysian haj entourage.
However, the management of health cases and Covid-19 in the Holy Land is subject to health protocols and directives by the government of Saudi Arabia.
Association of Bumiputera Tourism Operators of Malaysia president Harun KC Ahmmu said it is still too early to gauge if all pilgrims could be inoculated in time before the annual pilgrimage this season begins.
“It is still premature to discuss vaccination. Let’s wait until the haj quota for the country is obtained,” Harun told TMR.
Similarly, the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents VP for umrah and haj Mohd Azri Abd Razak said the SOPs and preparation for haj are still being discussed at the government level.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Datuk Dr Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri recently said the results of discussions with the authorities of Saudi Arabia on SOPs related to haj and umrah will be presented to the National Security Council and MoH.
However, he said so far, the Saudi government has yet to make any decision on haj and umrah pilgrimage for this season.
Malaysian pilgrims can choose to perform haj either through TH (muassasah); TH Travel and Services Sdn Bhd package or haj pilgrim’s coordinator (pengelola jemaah haji) package through Bumiputra Muslim travel agency licensed by TH.
Previously, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar said Phase 2 of the NIP — which targets the elderly, individuals with comorbidity and disabled groups — will also prioritise haj pilgrims based on TH’s request in line with Saudi Arabia’s requirement.
Khairy said a lower number of Malaysian pilgrims is expected due to the Covid-19 pandemic, thus Malaysia will have the capacity to cater to the additional group in Phase 2.
Before the pandemic, the Saudi Arabian government had set the haj quota for every country at 0.1% of the total population, which means around 31,000 people for Malaysia.
Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba previously said haj pilgrims this season will be going to Saudi Arabia starting in mid-June, with the vaccination done as early as May.
Recently, Saudi authorities said only people immunised against Covid-19 will be allowed to perform umrah and prayers in the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca starting from Ramadhan.
It was unclear if the permits for umrah, which is a year-round pilgrimage, will be extended to the upcoming annual haj this year.