Saudi Arabia is requiring all pilgrims for the scaled-back, annual Hajj in July to be vaccinated against COVID-19. In Tanzania, where vaccinations have not yet begun, Muslims hoping to go to Mecca are urging authorities to start jabbing.
Omar Aboubakar, like many other Muslims in Tanzania, wants to make the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. It’s an integral part of the Muslim faith, but for now only those immunized against COVID-19 can take part in this year’s Hajj.
Aboubakar is worried because vaccinations in Tanzania have yet to be approved.
“The time remaining is limited but still, we haven't given up,” he said. “We expect our top leaders to check on the issue of vaccination carefully so we can accomplish this holy worship. We failed to go last year because of COVID-19, and if it continues till next year it means our worship has ended. This is the main pillar of our religion.”
Until earlier this year, Tanzanian authorities had rejected COVID-19 vaccines. Then-President John Magufuli instead promoted false remedies for the disease.
Soon after Magufuli’s death in March, his successor, Samia Hassan, formed a COVID-19 task force to advise her government on handling the infections.
In its report two weeks ago, the committee declared the vaccines to be effective and recommended that travelers going abroad be among those to get their shots first.
"The committee advises the government using its institutions and continues to move to allow free vaccines, using vaccine brands listed by the World Health Organization, because the shots are effective and safe since they are scientifically proved,” said Said Aboud, the committee chairperson.
Last week, President Hassan said the government was checking to see if COVID-19 vaccines that are available in other countries can be ordered for Tanzanians.
But with no vaccination campaign in sight, Muslim leaders see the chances of Tanzanians attending this year’s pilgrimage to be low at best.
"I cannot say that we can’t accomplish Hajj worship, but the percentages seem to be very low to accomplish the worship this year,” Haidari Kambwili, the Hajj travelers coordinator with the National Muslim Council of Tanzania, said. “The remaining percentages only Allah will decide, because even if we get vaccinated as our leaders are struggling to accomplish — still, time is a challenge.”
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has not stopped Tanzanians like Aboubakar from continuing to worship in mosques. But for now, his plan to join his fellow Muslims in Mecca for Hajj prayers remains up in the air.