Covid-19 wrap: Muslims begin downsized hajj, Gambian president in self-isolation

A health worker sanitises his hands between taking swab samples at a collection booth at a hospital in New Delhi.
A health worker sanitises his hands between taking swab samples at a collection booth at a hospital in New Delhi.
Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Mask-clad Muslims began the hajj on Wednesday, circling Islam's holiest site along socially distanced paths in the smallest pilgrimage in modern history as the Saudi hosts strive to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, AFP reports.

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the world's largest religious gatherings.

But this year only up to 10 000 people already residing in the kingdom will participate in the ritual, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world that attended last year.

Pilgrims walked into Mecca's Grand Mosque to begin the ritual with their first "tawaf", the circumambulation of the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in gold-embroidered cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.

Pilgrims were brought in small batches, walking along paths marked on the floor, in sharp contrast to the hajj in previous years when a sea of humanity swirled around the Kaaba.

The tawaf, which involves walking around the structure seven times, was completed in "record time", a security commander told state media.

State media showed health workers sanitising their luggage, and some pilgrims reported being given electronic wristbands to allow authorities to monitor their whereabouts.

Workers, clutching brooms and disinfectant, were seen cleaning the area around the Kaaba. Using his bare hands, one worker was shown daubing its outer wall with perfume.

Authorities have cordoned off the Kaaba this year, saying pilgrims will not be allowed to touch it, to limit the chances of infection.

The foreign press are barred from this year's hajj, usually a huge global media event, as the government tightens access to Mecca.

Saudi authorities also reported setting up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims.

Gambia President enters self-isolation

The Gambia's President Adama Barrow went into self-isolation on Wednesday, his office said, after the West African state's vice president tested positive for coronavirus, Reuters reports.

In a statement published on social media, Barrow's office said the president will self-isolate for two weeks, with immediate effect.

"The public is reminded that the coronavirus is real and exists in The Gambia," the statement said.

It added that citizens should wear face masks and practise social distancing.

Health authorities in the former British colony of some two million people have recorded 326 coronavirus cases to date, with eight fatalities.

But as with other poor countries in the region, there are fears that the tiny country is ill-equipped for a large outbreak.

UK watchdog steps up scrutiny of how banks treat customers

Reuters reports that financial firms will face closer scrutiny of how they deal with an expected rise in vulnerable customers as COVID-19 relief measures are phased out after October, Britain's Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said on Wednesday.

The FCA published draft guidance setting out how firms should treat customers facing financial, health or other difficulties that make it harder for them to keep up with repayments.

The number of potentially vulnerable consumers has already risen by 1.5 million since the pandemic started, to total 25.5 million, or about half of UK adults, the FCA says.

Numbers are likely to rise further as mortgage and credit card payment holidays granted by banks come to an end in the autumn, along with furlough schemes that have kept people off the dole queue for now.

Nisha Arora, the FCA's director of retail, said the guidance, due to formally come into effect by early 2021, fleshes out existing principles that require firms to treat their customers fairly.

Greece to return 1.4bn euros to pensioners hit by pandemic

Reuters reports that Greece will this year return 1.4 billion euros to pensioners whose income was slashed during the financial crisis of the past decade, the country's prime minister said on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' conservative government made the decision following a top court ruling which said that some pension cuts imposed in 2015-2016 were illegal.

Mitsotakis said the one-off payment applies only to main pensions - not supplementary pensions or benefits. The money will be distributed to about 2 million private and public sector pensioners, a government official said.

The decision is expected to burden this year's budget. Greece's economy is seen shrinking by up to 10 percent this year due a nationwide lockdown the government imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

"This particular cost touches the limits of the country's fiscal potential," Mitsotakis told lawmakers. "There is no room for further provisions."

Under the terms of three international bailouts in 2010-2015, Greece cut state pensions several times to reduce spending and make the system viable.

The country still has the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the eurozone and the health pandemic dashed its hopes for strong growth this year.

Its finances are being closely monitored by the country's international lenders, the European Union and the IMF.

EU orders 30 000 remdesivir treatments

AFP reports that the European Commission has ordered 30 000 treatment doses of the antiviral medication remdesivir from US drugs giant Gilead, it announced Wednesday.

Sold under the brand name Veklury, remdesivir is the first medicine to be approved by the EU to treat victims of the Covid-19 pandemic in EU member states and Britain.

It is hoped the drug will shorten recovery times for patients with severe infections and it will be made available early next month.

The first batch of doses will cost 63 million euros ($73 million) and ought to cover needs for the next few months before a second procurement contract in October.

Bosnian minister dies of Covid-19 

A Bosnian minister for veterans affairs died Wednesday after contracting the novel coronavirus, state television channel BHRT reported, Reuters reports.

Salko Bukvarevic, 53, held the cabinet post in Bosnia's Muslim-Croat entity, one of the country's two main administrative regions.

He had been hospitalised for health complications from the virus and was placed Monday on assisted ventilation, Sarajevo University clinic told BHRT.

The struggling Balkan country of 3.5 million has reported around 11 000 cases of Covid-19 and more than 300 fatalities.

It has faced a rampant resurgence of infections, with nearly 100 cases per 100 000 inhabitants, among the highest infection rates in Europe, the World Health Organisation warned last week.

Fadil Novalic, 61, the prime minister of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation, also suffered from an infection but has recovered and was released from the hospital last weekend.

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