For those who have waited years to go to Mecca, the wait is almost over. As of Sept. 1, almost 170,000 Indonesians will head to Saudi Arabia to carry out one of their obligations as Muslims.
The pilgrimage to Mecca is not only mandatory, but is also a celebration of financial achievement. Many Indonesians have had to save, coin-by-coin, portions of their minimum wages to meet this once in a life time obligation.
Therefore, it is no surprise that in many parts of the country, extended families cheerfully send off the pilgrims.
What many of these pilgrims do not realize is that this time they are traveling to an area that is dealing with public health crises. Today, the Middle East is facing two major health risks in the forms of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and Ebola outbreaks.
MERS-CoV can cause fever and, in some cases, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Since its emergence, this type of coronavirus has been detected in a number of regions across Saudi Arabia. From September 2012 to Aug. 31, 2014, a total of 726 cases were reported in the kingdom, of which 302 of them were fatal.
At the same time, the neighboring continent of Africa is struggling with Ebola, a severe illness, with a death rate of almost 100 percent. In the current outbreak, the majority of cases in humans have occurred through human-to-human transmission. As of Aug. 28, Ebola has infected over 3,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, killing more than a half of them.
Due to Ebola’s severity, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, meaning that Africa cannot contain it alone. The rest of the world must help to prevent it becoming a global epidemic.
The Saudi Arabian government has moved quickly by banning pilgrims from Ebola-stricken African countries from entering the country. However, thousands of others from the same continent will still make the trip and will need to be monitored closely.
Indonesian pilgrims will face these risks. Without enough preventive measures, Indonesian pilgrims may not return home safely and complete the haj rituals. Worse, they may take the diseases back with them.
The Saudi Arabian government claims to have been working with the WHO to learn more about how it can contain the viruses, prevent people from contracting them and advance its curative measures.
Now the question is what have the Indonesian authorities done to protect the 168,000 pilgrims?
Senior health ministry officials have consistently warned Indonesians about the spread of the two deadly diseases.
In the recent coordination meeting at Office of the Coordinating People’s Welfare Minister, the government said it had prepared various measures that included asking the newly established National Commission on Zoonosis Control to coordinate efforts to protect Indonesians pilgrims and ensure the two viruses did not arrive and spread throughout the archipelago.
On paper, these are good plans. But it will take a lot of effort for the commission to play its role accordingly. Why is it so challenging for the government-sanctioned body to play its cards right?
First, this commission is not a popular agency. Although established in 2012, only a few experts and senior officials know of its existence and mandate. Many, even within the bureaucracy, are not aware of the existence of this executive body. This is a weak spot.
The ministries and agencies under the commission’s coordination will not listen to its warnings, let alone to quickly implement its recommendations.
Because of its coordination role, the strength of this commission depends on information and data from ministries and other government agencies. When a ministry fails to provide the most updated situation and implementing recommendations, the commission will lose its eyes, ears and hands immediately.
That’s where the second factor plays in. The Religious Affairs Ministry, the most responsible institution for managing the haj, seems to have not done enough to inform pilgrims about the latest situation. Many pilgrims do not recognize the grave threats they face.
The ministry has been busy dealing with corruption allegations, including the misuse of haj funds. Worse, the ministry’s director general for the haj, Anggito Abimanyu, resigned soon after, then the minister, Suryadharma Ali, stepped down due to graft charges.
These last-minute exits have forced the authorities to fix the ministry’s broken management, quickly prepare the departure of pilgrims and ensure the facilities are in place.
Thus, it is doubtful the ministry has had enough time and manpower to set up an information campaign, prepare high-tech medical equipment and deploy quality experts on MERS-CoV and Ebola to protect the pilgrims.
However, small steps can still be taken. The national commission should realize this weak spot and take over the management of the information campaign for the pilgrims. Establishing a public-private-partnership with the flight carriers, hotels, catering services and other service providers to rapidly disseminate simple prevention messages to pilgrims will be vital.
The messages should contain advice, such as like avoiding unnecessary contact with camels and washing hands often.
An information campaign should also be launched to make Indonesian pilgrims aware of the health risks they may face. Avoiding contact with sick people is strongly advised. Not only because it may protect them, but it prevents them from carrying the viruses back to Indonesia.
As the world’s largest contingent, Indonesian pilgrims will make stops in many international airports. Their safety determines the safety of the country, even the world.
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