Delwar Hossain, who registered for this year’s hajj trip, believes he will not be able to make the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia as the coronavirus pandemic threatens to derail his plan.
“I have no hope of making the hajj trip this year,” he told bdnews24.com on Friday. “I don’t think Saudi Arabia will allow anyone to go. They may allow only a few people from neighbouring countries this year.”
Delwar is among many pilgrims who say the pandemic has dimmed hopes for the journeys.
Government officials who handle the trips say the chances of making the pilgrimage this year are slim. They do, however, provide assurances that all those who have paid for the trips will be given a refund.
“The Saudi government has yet to make any announcement on hajj. I hope we will learn something by Sunday or Monday,” Ashkona Hajj Office Director Md Saiful Islam said on Saturday, when asked about the situation.
“Everything depends on the Saudi government’s announcement and the decisions from the highest levels of our government.”
The number of people infected with COVID-19, which was first detected in Bangladesh in March, is currently at a record high. The number of people who tested positive for the disease crossed 100,000. The death toll stood at 1,388.
The epidemic in Saudi Arabia has not improved either and the number of cases continues to grow. According to the Saudi Gazette, 4,757 new cases were identified on Thursday, the second-highest number of daily infections reported in the country.
This puts the total number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in Saudi Arabia at 145,991. The death toll in the kingdom stands at 1,139.
Though Bangladesh has lifted many of the restrictions imposed in its effort to curb the disease, the lockdown has entered its third month in Saudi Arabia.
Mohammad Anwar Hossain, a spokesman for the Ministry of Religious Affairs, gave assurances that all those who have registered and paid for hajj trips will be reimbursed.
“The fees for registration and pre-registration are paid through the bank. As soon as the fee is deposited the ministry sends a letter preventing people from withdrawing it.”
“Later, it is made available for withdrawal to purchase Biman tickets. As a result, there is no chance of anyone losing their money if they cannot make the hajj trip.”
If any of those who registered fails to make the trip this year will be refunded, the official said. They could also choose to go next year if they wished, he said.
According to the agreement with Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh can send 137,198 people for the hajj pilgrimage this year. This includes 17,198 through government means and 120,000 through private organisations.
Accordingly, registration for the seats opened on March 1. But few chose to sign up after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Bangladesh on March 8. The deadline for registration was extended several times, first to Mar 25, then to Apr 8 and then to Apr 30.
In the end, 3,457 people registered for government’s hajj arrangements and 61,137 planned for their trips through private agencies.
Each traveller using private arrangements deposited Tk 182,952 to the banks, making for a total of Tk 11.19 billion in deposits for the journey. There were also additional fees paid to rent lodging in Saudi Arabia and for the Moallem fee.
The travellers using government arrangements were offered three different travel packages and paid accordingly. The first package was priced at Tk 425,000, the second at Tk 360,000 and the third at Tk 315,000.
According to a ministry official, people had registered and paid for all three packages, but he could not specify how many people had registered for each package.
M Shahadat Hossain Taslim, president of Hajj Agency Association of Bangladesh, said that those who had made hajj travel arrangements through private organisations would also be given a refund on their deposits.
“Nobody will be able to withdraw the money so it will not be lost – this is a 100 per cent guarantee,” he said.
Hajji Md Mostofa, a resident of Keraniganj’s Shubhada Village who arranges for people to make the pilgrimage every year, advised those who registered not to worry about their deposits.
“The government freezes the account as soon as the money is deposited in the hajj registration account,” he said. “The money is then withdrawn by pay orders. So there is no risk of being defrauded.”
“But if someone were to take money from people promising to deposit it to the bank for hajj registrations and pre-registrations and then use it for personal business, then it will be a different matter.”
The first hajj flight was to depart Bangladesh on Jun 23, Mostofa said. “But we have stopped registrations. I don’t see any hope of going on hajj this year.”
“There is very little time, the coronavirus is spreading here and in Saudi Arabia. Many people here have said they won’t go for Hajj.”
HAAB President Taslim says many people will suffer financially if the hajj trips are cancelled because of the coronavirus, reports bdnews24.com.
“Nearly 800 agencies employing over 100,000 people were making hajj arrangements,” he said. “Their lives and livelihoods depend on the hajj.”
“There are also about 50,000 Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia who wait all year for the hajj journeys to earn an income to support their lives there and their families in Bangladesh.”