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Saudi Arabia expands Haj to 1 million pilgrims, easing COVID curbs

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(Last Updated On: April 9, 2022)

Saudi Arabia will let up to 1 million people join the Haj pilgrimage this year, greatly expanding the key event to participants from outside the kingdom after two years of tight COVID restrictions, state media said on Saturday.

Pilgrims to Mecca this year must be under age 65 and fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, the ministry of Hajj and Umrah said in a statement carried by the SPA news agency.

Participants from abroad will be allowed this year but must present a recent negative COVID PCR test, and health precautions will be observed, it said.

Last year, the kingdom limited the annual Haj, one of Islam’s five main pillars, to 60,000 domestic participants, compared to the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.

Visits to the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the week-long Haj, and the lesser, year-round Umrah pilgrimage, previously earned the kingdom about $12 billion a year, according to official data.

COVID-19

China closes Potala Palace after COVID-19 reported in Tibet

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(Last Updated On: August 9, 2022)

Chinese authorities have closed Tibet’s famed Potala Palace after a minor outbreak of COVID-19 was reported in the Himalayan region.

The action underscores China’s continued adherence to its “zero-COVID” policy, mandating lockdowns, routine testing, quarantines and travel restrictions, even while most other countries have reopened, AP reported.

A notice on the palace’s Weixin social media site said the palace that was the traditional home of Tibet’s Buddhist leaders would be closed from Tuesday, with a reopening date to be announced later.

Tibet’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism and the Potala is a key draw.

China announced 828 new cases of domestic transmission on Tuesday, 22 of them in Tibet. The majority of those cases showed no symptoms.

Meanwhile, more than 80,000 travelers remain stranded on the southern resort island of Hainan under requirements that they consistently test negative for the virus in coming days before being allowed to leave, AP reported.

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COVID-19

China’s COVID-19 lockdown strands 25,000 tourists in Sanya resort town

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(Last Updated On: August 8, 2022)

China’s popular tourist island of Hainan locked down more areas on Monday as it battles its worst COVID-19 outbreak after recording very few cases over the past two years, compared with many other regions in the country.

About 25,000 tourists were stranded in Sanya, the hardest-hit city in Hainan’s outbreak and the island’s key tourist center, as of Sunday, The National reported.

The island in the South China Sea, which recorded just two local symptomatic COVID cases last year, has reported more than 1,400 infections this month. 

Although that is small by global standards, it is the province’s biggest outbreak since the virus was first reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, The National reported.

The provincial capital city of Haikou, with about 2.9 million residents, and two smaller towns, Ledong and Chengmai, locked down its residents on Monday, according to state media reports.

The lockdowns in several cities on the tropical island dashed hopes for a quick rebound of the country’s ailing aviation sector, which had counted on a summer travel boom to help to trim record losses.

As of Sunday, mainland China had confirmed 231,266 cases with symptoms, including both local patients and symptomatic international travelers.

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President Biden tests negative for Covid-19

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(Last Updated On: August 7, 2022)

President Biden tested negative for COVID-19 on Saturday, according to a letter from White House physician Dr. Kevin O’Connor, but he will continue to isolate until he tests negative a second time, NPR reported.

“The President continues to feel very well,” O’Connor wrote. Biden has been testing daily since he first tested positive for the virus on July 21. The White House said he experienced only mild symptoms, including fatigue, a runny nose, and cough.

According to NPR Biden, who is fully vaccinated and twice boosted, was prescribed the antiviral therapy Paxlovid, a standard course of treatment for people who are considered to be at higher risk of adverse affects of COVID, including anyone over 50.

His symptoms were “nearly resolved” after four days of treatment, the White House said.

The president briefly left isolation last week, after testing negative for COVID on July 27. He reentered isolation after testing positive again on July 30, in what O’Connor described as a “rebound” case, read the report.

On Saturday night, the White House announced that Biden planned to travel to Rehoboth Beach, Del., early on Sunday morning.

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