Malaysia says Islamic event linked to virus cases, days after 250,000 gathered in Pakistan

Malaysia announced a spike of 190 new infections over the weekend, mostly linked to global Islamic event attended by 20,000 people

A thermal camera monitor shows the body temperatures of a man at the customs checkpoint in Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat on the Thailand-Malaysia border, March 15, 2020. AFP/Madaree Tohlala

KUALA LUMPUR: Over half of Malaysia's 428 cases of coronavirus were linked to an international Islamic gathering held last month, its health ministry said Sunday, just two days after hundreds of thousands of worshippers gathered for the annual Tablighi Ijtema congregation in eastern Pakistan.

The Southeast Asian nation announced a spike of 190 new infections over the weekend, mostly linked to a global Islamic event attended by almost 20,000 people. "Of the 428 cases, 243 are participants from the religious event in Sri Petaling mosque," Noor Hisham Abdullah, the director-general of the health ministry, told AFP.

Authorities said participants at the gathering — from February 27 to March 1 — came from Bangladesh, Brunei, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Around 14,500 of the participants were Malaysian.

Brunei reported 10 new cases on Saturday, raising the total to 50, most in people who attended the Malaysia gathering. Singapore has also announced cases linked to the event.

On Friday, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin warned Malaysia of a second wave of infections spread and urged people to avoid mass gatherings.

250,000 pilgrims in Pakistan despite virus warnings

Ahmad Farouk, a lecturer at Monash University, told AFP that authorities should shut down mosques for at least two weeks to contain the spread of the virus.

Islamic worshippers board a truck before their departure from the annual Tablighi Ijtema religious gathering in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan, March 13, 2020. AFP/Arif Ali

At 250,000 people had congregated in camps near Lahore since Wednesday earlier this week for the annual, five-day Tablighi Ijtema congregation, ignoring government warnings that such events could propagate the novel coronavirus pandemic.

However, organisers late Thursday had to curtail the annual event — which had drawn people from across the country — but cited rainy weather as the cause for the early closure.

"Most of the people have returned to their homes but still tens of thousands of people are here. They will return today," one of the event's organisers Ehsanullah, who goes by one name, told AFP on Friday.

'Proceed as planned'

Organisers of the Tablighi Ijtema seemed to ignore government advice to postpone, with Ehsanullah saying: "The government asked us to cancel the gathering because of the coronavirus but our elders and organisers decided that the gathering will proceed as planned."

The movement was founded by religious scholars more than five decades ago and focuses exclusively on preaching Islam.

It usually sees hundreds of camps and sub-camps set up on a dusty site outside Lahore to accommodate people from across Pakistan, giving the gathering a festival feel.

Islamic worshippers board a truck before their departure from the annual Tablighi Ijtema religious gathering in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan, March 13, 2020. AFP/Arif Ali

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Friday, however, had asked people not to worry. "Thank God, the coronavirus pandemic is under control in Pakistan," he had said.

"The border needs to be closed for the next 15 days. The days of the Raiwind gathering have been reduced and Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar informed that arrangements have been made in Dera Ghazi Khan," the foreign minister had said.

Punjab reports first case, Sindh confirms 18

Punjab reported its first case of coronavirus earlier today (Sunday) almost 20 days after Pakistan reported the first two cases in Sindh on February 26. The provincial chief secretary also announced that section 144 had been imposed for at least three weeks after new cases were reported in the country.

The pandemic — which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan on December 1, 2019 — has so far infected 53 confirmed cases in Pakistan but there have been no deaths as officials have tested fewer than 500 potential cases in the country of about 215 million, where health care is frequently inadequate.

Sindh's tally rose to 35 on Sunday, as 13 new cases were confirmed in Sukkur and another five in Karachi. One case was also reported from Islamabad.

Balochistan has at least 10 cases and Gilgit-Baltistan has three. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has yet to report a case.

Among cities, Karachi remains the worst-affected city with a total of 22 cases. Of the rest, Islamabad has four, whereas Quetta and Hyderabad have one each.

Seven people were kept under quarantine in Taftan.

Public gatherings banned globally

Many countries are advising against large gatherings in a bid to slow the spread of the highly communicable virus. Some nations — like France and Italy — have banned them altogether.

The federal government has issued orders for closure of Pakistan's western borders with Iran and Afghanistan but provinces were also forced to act independently, banning public gatherings and shutting down schools.

Schools in three of Pakistan's four provinces are closed for March and authorities are conducting basic screenings of passengers arriving by air from overseas. Sindh said its schools would reopen in June, effectively terming the closure as 'summer vacations'.