by BERNAMA / pic by TMR FILE
KUALA LUMPUR – Despite the haj pilgrimage being postponed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lembaga Tabung Haji (TH) still continues its preparations, taking into account the current pandemic situation and developments in Saudi Arabia.
TH Haj executive director, Datuk Seri Syed Saleh Syed Abdul Rahman, said the planning and preparations had been continuously implemented since the 2020 haj season in an effort to ensure that the Malaysian haj pilgrims will be able to perform the fifth pillar of Islam smoothly.
He said one of the steps implemented was conducting 14 series of haj courses for prospective pilgrims online, including an additional series emphasising the new standard operating procedures (SOPs) in Saudi Arabia as well as the haj rules and regulations in the current environment of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He added that TH would ensure that prospective pilgrims received their respective vaccinations and have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as required by the Saudi Arabian government before they were allowed to enter the holy land.
Apart from that, TH, during the national-level haj muzakarah held previously, has also emphasised the concept of istito’ah or ability to perform haj during the pandemic.
“In this muzakarah, it was important for us to refine and set resolutions to be used as a pilgrimage guide to perform haj in the new norm by looking at the constraints of movement and obstructions in the event of an outbreak,” he said in an interview with Bernama.
Syed Saleh said TH had also held a meeting with those handling the operations in the country involving departure stations and organised a workshop with the Ministry of Health (MOH) relating to SOPs for staff and health protocols that needed to be complied with.
He said the MOH health team will be assigned at eight departure stations in the country to monitor the health status of pilgrims before leaving for the holy land. TH will also increase the number of healthcare workers, especially public health teams to be stationed at three main locations in Jeddah, Madinah and Makkah.
“Previously, during the haj season, we have 260 medical staff from various categories including specialist doctors, nurses and pharmacists, but due to COVID-19, we need to add at least 30 more personnel to manage the pilgrims’ health and safety,” he said.
He added that this also takes into account the isolation facilities in hotels and other accommodation, the provision of medical equipment such as ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as medicines.
As part of the preparation, TH has conducted scenario planning where it details the actions to be taken at each stage of haj activities, both here and in the holy land with various possible scenarios that may occur during the haj operation.
Officers have also been provided with adequate training, knowledge and mental preparation to face the situation of the new norm in looking after the pilgrims, thus ready to become the frontliners when the haj season arrives.
“If there is a positive case of COVID-19 among Malaysian pilgrims, firstly, we will be subject to the SOPs set by the Ministry of Health of Saudi Arabia and then we will see the SOPs, based on the current development of COVID-19.
“Secondly, we need to assess the COVID-19 infection, if it is at categories 1 and 2, then we can handle it ourselves in our hospital, except for categories 4 and 5 which require facilities in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), then we will send the case to a hospital there (Saudi Arabia),” he said.
The cost of the haj pilgrimage is expected to increase, largely linked to physical distancing such as in hotel rooms and buses, as well as the limited movement of pilgrims inside the Masjidil Haram (the Grand Mosque).
He said this was based on costs related to the new norm SOPs, increased operating costs and other costs incurred in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
“I see this has an impact on the cost of the next haj pilgrimage as recently the pilgrims had to pay around RM15,000 to RM20,000 for five to seven days, involving three locations, namely Arafah, Muzdalifah and Mina and performing tawaf and saie only.
“The cost does not include the cost of hotel accommodation in Makkah and Madinah as well as food and drink, flights from Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. Hence, prospective pilgrims need to be prepared for this increase in costs,” he said, adding that the haj pilgrimage in 2019 costing RM9,980 per person for a period of 40 to 45 days.
He said in terms of services, to facilitate the pilgrims, TH will also launch the TH Hujjaj application in the coming haj season, which contains various important information for pilgrims to use as reference and guidance on haj, health and prayer times, thus help smooth pilgrim management.
In addition, the e-Taib (Talian Ibadah – call centre) platform will also be continued which will allow pilgrims to get clarification and guidance on haj-related questions quickly and effectively through the WhatsApp application.