Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Saudi Arabia has imposed a 24-hour curfew over Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, as it fights to contain a Covid-19 outbreak.

“The complete, round-the-clock lockdown in the cities of Mecca and Medina, effective today until further notice, is part of the government’s efforts to curb the impact of the novel coronavirus,” said interior ministry spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Talal al-Shalhoub.

The kingdom earlier this week raised the possibility of canceling Hajj, the pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites obligatory for every Muslim once in their lifetime.

The government has meanwhile instructed residents of Mecca and Medina to “self-quarantine.” They may only leave their homes in case of emergency, and only between the hours of 6am and 3pm.

While he referred to the measure as “precautionary” it is the most severe curfew nationwide. Even Shiite-majority eastern regions, isolated citizens brought the virus back from Iran, have curfews beginning at 3pm.

Mecca and Medina have the largest concentration of new infections, according to the Saudi health ministry, which flagged nearly 100 fresh cases on Thursday.

The coastal city of Jeddah was another hotspot, with 30 new cases.

Saudi Arabia, a country of some 33 million people, has recorded a total of 1,885 cases. The neighboring United Arab Emirates has more than 1,000 cases, while Iran has more than 50,000.

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.