Solihull park letting lifts M42 market

View Details

The truth about the porn industry

View Details

A Tool for Evaluating Your Children’s Screen Time

View Details

For Moscow’s quarantined, 100,000 cameras are watching

first_img‘Big Brother’ “Due to stronger data protection laws in Europe, facial recognition has not yet been implemented on a large scale. Russian and Chinese companies have had less legal constraints to gather and use data than their European counterparts,” Weber told AFP.Before the coronavirus pandemic, critics warned of the potential for excessive state surveillance reminiscent of the all-seeing “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s novel “1984”.The fear was that rather than protecting the general public, the cameras would be used to monitor Kremlin opponents and undermine civil liberties. “The security argument is the one always used to justify loss of privacy and personal liberty. That’s where the greatest problem and the greatest danger lie,” said French cybersecurity researcher and renowned hacker Baptiste Robert.The technology’s creator Minin says that he has confidence in the Moscow authorities and insists that personal data like passport details and phone numbers is not stored on the same databases as camera images.He says the data sets can only be matched by law enforcement if deemed strictly necessary.But opponents see such technology as threatening, given the Soviet history of mass surveillance of those deemed by the KGB secret police to be state enemies.Vocal rights activist and lawyer Alyona Popova launched legal action against the use of facial recognition at an officially authorized opposition protest in September last year.She said cameras were attached to metal detectors that every participant had to pass through. “The massive use of facial recognition technology amounts to state surveillance of its citizens and the state will certainly use it against political opponents,” she told AFP.Her complaint was eventually thrown out, but an online petition she launched on Change.org against the technology’s use gained almost 75,000 signatures before the COVID-19 crisis. The mayor’s office denies the technology is used to monitor the opposition.Yet to highlight the issue, four activists in February protested outside the presidential administration offices, their faces brightly painted with geometrical shapes and lines said to confuse cameras.A similar protest took place in London.”There have already been cases of political activists who were detained in the metro after being identified with the help of cameras,” said one of the protesters, artist Katrin Nenasheva. Four of the activists were later fined 15,000 rubles ($185) after being charged with organizing an unsanctioned protest.NtechLab chief Minin warned that face painting or covering up ultimately won’t help those wanting to avoid being identified.”We can work even when up to 40 percent of the face is covered by a helmet or medical mask,” he said. A vast and contentious network of facial recognition cameras keeping watch over Moscow is now playing a key role in the battle against the spread of the coronavirus in Russia.The city rolled out the technology just before the epidemic reached Russia, ignoring protests and legal complaints over sophisticated state surveillance.Since last month, thousands of Muscovites have been confined to their homes for 14 days of compulsory quarantine after returning from virus-hit countries, being in contact with those infected or diagnosed with mild symptoms. Police have logged their details and warned them that sneaking out into the city of 16 million residents and daily visitors could lead to a five-year jail term or deportation for foreigners.”We are constantly checking that this regulation is being observed, including through the use of automated facial recognition systems,” Mayor Sergei Sobyanin wrote in his blog in February.The Russian capital already had a tight network of 170,000 security cameras, set up in streets and metro stations throughout the city over the past decade.Around 100,000 have now been linked to artificial intelligence systems that can identify people being filmed. The remaining cameras are due to be connected soon. 600 neighbors Moscow City Hall has boasted that the network of cameras is a particularly effective tool.Sobyanin has said that the authorities have contacts and work addresses for 95 percent of those quarantined after returning from high-risk countries.”We’ve identified where they are,” said the mayor, who heads a working group on combatting the virus set up by Putin.Last month on his blog he praised the efficiency of the facial recognition system with a story of a Chinese woman who tested positive soon after arrival and was hospitalized.Her flatmate was quarantined but security cameras filmed her walking outside and meeting a male friend.The mayor added that the authorities swiftly gathered contacts of more than 600 of the woman’s neighbors and even her taxi driver from the airport. Facial recognition technology was first tested during the 2018 World Cup in Russia before going fully online in January, just before the pandemic hit.”The probability of a mistake by our facial recognition algorithm is 1 in 15 million,” said Alexander Minin, CEO of NtechLab, the company that won the city’s tender to supply the technology.The firm’s devices, which have been exported to China and Latin America, can identify someone from their silhouette alone “80 percent of the time,” he told AFP at the start of the year.Russia alongside China lead the field globally with the most sophisticated technology, which they export to some 100 countries, Valentin Weber, a researcher in cybersecurity at the University of Oxford, wrote in a 2019 paper.center_img Topics : Moscow police said last week that the cameras that are linked have allowed them to identify almost 200 people who broke quarantine rules. As well as the cameras, Russia has said it is drawing on an array of technology to fight the virus, including telemedicine consultations, the real-time monitoring of supermarket shelves and identifying and removing false news stories from social media.President Vladimir Putin last week toured a hi-tech center set up to monitor the virus situation and Russia’s response.The country, as of Monday, had reported 438 coronavirus infections, most of them in Moscow. One person who was infected has died but officials are not linking the death to the virus.last_img read more

India’s coronavirus heroes come under attack

first_imgThis week, doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences appealed to the government for help after health workers were forced out of their homes by panicked landlords and housing societies.”Many doctors are stranded on the roads with all their luggage, nowhere to go, across the country,” the letter said.Modi called on Indians to stop treating medical workers as pariahs, describing those fighting the virus were “god-like”.”Today they are the people who are saving us from dying, putting their lives in danger.” Sanjibani Panigrahi, a doctor in the western city of Surat, described how she was accosted as she returned home from a long day at a hospital that is treating COVID-19 patients.She said neighbors blocked her at the entrance to her apartment building and threatened “consequences” if she continued to work.”These are the same people who have happily interacted with me [in the past]. Whenever they’ve faced a problem, I’ve helped them out,” the 36-year-old told AFP.”There is a sense of fear among people. I do understand. But it’s like I suddenly became an untouchable.” Fake news and paranoia Health workers are not the only ones facing the brunt of the frightened population in an environment where misinformation and rumors are thriving.Airline and airport staff, who are still being called on for evacuations of Indians stuck overseas and management of key cargo deliveries, have also been threatened.Airline and airport staff, who are still being called on for evacuations of Indians stuck overseas and manage key cargo deliveries, have also been threatened.Indigo and Air India have condemned threats made against their staff.An Air India flight attendant told AFP her neighbors threatened to evict her from her apartment while she was heading to the United States, saying she would “infect everyone”.”I couldn’t sleep that night,” she said, afraid to reveal her name over fear of further stigmatization.”I was scared that even if I did go home, would someone break open the door or call people to kick me out?”Her husband had to ask the police for help.Others have not been as lucky, the flight attendant said, with one colleague — who declined to speak to AFP — forced out of her home and now living with her parents.”With all the fake news and WhatsApp forwards, they don’t know what is going on, so there’s this paranoia that makes them behave like this,” she said.T. Praveen Keerthi, general secretary of the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (IPCA), told AFP they had received more than 50 complaints from airline crew.”Airline staffers are being stopped from entering their own residential premises by security guards,” he said.”We also have families and children that we leave at home to help fellow citizens… The least we expect is for our colleagues to not be harassed and ostracized.”Airport workers involved in moving essential supplies have also faced attacks as have delivery workers transporting medicines and groceries.E-commerce giant Flipkart temporarily suspended services this week.The Walmart-owned group said it only resumed home deliveries after police guaranteed “the safe and smooth passage of our supply chain and delivery executives”. Topics : They have been hailed as India’s coronavirus “heroes”, but doctors, nurses, delivery drivers and other frontline workers have been attacked and in some cases evicted from their homes by panicked residents.Some e-commerce giants have even halted deliveries partly due to the harassment of staff, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi said abuse of hospital workers had become a “huge issue”.Reports of attacks and abuse have come from across India, increasing with the imposition this week of a 21-day nationwide lockdown. In at least one case, police were accused of beating a delivery driver carrying medicines.last_img read more

Foreign workers feel the pain of ‘corona job cuts’ in Japan

first_imgThe coronavirus pandemic has hit Japan’s economy hard and many factories, including those of carmakers, are scaling back production.Foreign workers are particularly vulnerable, with a weaker support network and language barriers that prevent them from seeking government help.Union groups, labor lawyers and nonprofit organizations say foreign workers such as Yamashita are the first to lose jobs in “corona cuts”, which they fear may expand to the kind of mass layoffs seen in the 2008 financial crisis.Last month, the Japan Center for Economic Research estimated that if Japan’s GDP contracted by 25 percent this year, the unemployment rate would reach 5% and about 2 million people could lose their jobs. Topics : In March and April, a labor organization based in Mie, a manufacturing center about 300km west of Tokyo, received 400 consultations from laborers who were affected by the coronavirus. About 330 were foreign workers.”Foreign workers on short-term contracts are laid off first,” because they’re easier to fire, Union Mie organizer Akai Jimbu said.Last year, 34.5 percent of foreign employees in Mie were temporary workers, compared with the national average of 2.5 percent.”It’s almost like they’re hired so that they can be fired when the going gets tough,” Jimbu said. “They’re just a spare bolt in the eyes of the employer.”‘First to go’Japan has become increasingly reliant on foreign labor. With a third of its population over 65 and a smaller working population, the government has eased some immigration restrictions.More than 1.6 million foreign workers supported the Japanese economy as of October 2019 – a four-fold increase from 2008.A labor ministry official told Reuters the ministry does not officially track the number of foreign workers laid off because it provides “support to all workers” regardless of their nationality.Still, the government recently allocated 370 million yen ($3.46 million) to improve multilingual support for foreigners at unemployment offices and online.But most foreign workers don’t turn to the government for help. While Union Mie handled hundreds of consultations this year through mid-April, the local labor ministry office saw only seven.Kaori Nakao, a Japanese-Brazilian woman, sought help from the union when her employer laid her off from a car component factory at the end of March.The company told her she was being fired because of coronavirus-related production cuts. Nakao, 38, was also ordered to leave her company apartment.Pregnant with her fourth child and with no savings, she asked Union Mie for help.Last month, union members and Nakao protested outside her employer’s office and the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Thermal Systems factory where she worked.Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Thermal Systems declined to comment because it did not employ Nakao.”I just want to work,” Nakao said. “I have zero money and I can’t even buy food for my children.”Yamashita, who is still looking for jobs, said he had found an open position at another car parts factory a few weeks ago.The contract was only for three months – maybe even less. Still, Yamashita said, it was something. He interviewed for the job, and was looking forward to a respite from searching.But then he got a call. The position wasn’t available anymore.”We are the first to go,” he says of foreigners working in Japan. “I already know about that.”center_img Eight years after arriving from Brazil, Rennan Yamashita sat in a government office in central Japan, filling out forms for unemployment insurance after losing his job for the ninth or 10th time – he has lost count.Some weeks earlier, he was laid off from his job at a car parts factory. He only held that job for four months.”If they need you, they hire you; if they don’t need you, they’ll fire you. It’s simple like that,” said Yamashita, 31.last_img read more

Italy records fewest new virus cases since February

first_imgItaly posted a series of encouraging figures in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday, including the smallest daily number of new cases since February 26, the Civil Protection Agency said in a statement. The official tally of new cases increased by 178 in 24 hours, bringing the total to 233,197. The daily number of new cases was 516 Friday, 416 Saturday and 355 Sunday.  Topics : The number of deaths in the past 24 hours was also low compared to the recent average with 60 victims recorded throughout Italy for a total of 33,475 deaths, while the number of people in intensive care, 424, continues to fall. Lombardy in the north remains the most affected region, with 16,131 deaths and 89,018 cases, but it recorded only 50 new cases on Monday from a population of around 10 million. Monday’s figures make encouraging reading as they come two days before the planned reopening on Wednesday of internal boundaries as well as borders with European Union countries and the Schengen area. Italy has been easing its lockdown gradually since the beginning of May, eager to get the economy back up off its knees.last_img read more

Systemic racism slows economic growth: Dallas Fed chief Kaplan

first_imgThe comments by the Fed policymakers follow weeks of nationwide protests against police brutality and racism after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis. The white police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck has been fired and charged with murder.”It’s in the interest of the US,” Kaplan said. “The fastest-growing demographic groups in this country are blacks and Hispanics. If they don’t participate equally, then we’re going to grow more slowly.”Kaplan said the Dallas Fed and the Federal Reserve System have been working for years to improve skills training and education for blacks and Hispanics, who have long endured a higher level of unemployment than whites.Overall unemployment, which spiked dramatically during the shutdowns, is on the way down, Kaplan said, adding that he expects to see positive job growth starting this month. Systemic racism and high unemployment levels among black and Hispanic Americans create a drag on the US economy, Dallas Federal Reserve President Robert Kaplan said on Sunday.”A more inclusive economy where everyone has an opportunity will mean faster workforce growth, faster productivity growth and will grow faster,” Kaplan said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”Kaplan said he agreed with his counterpart at the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, Raphael Bostic – the Fed’s only African-American policymaker – who on Friday called for an end to racism and laid out ways the US central bank can help. He said fiscal policy, which is set by Congress, will be a critical element of the recovery, including unemployment benefits, possibly “restructured to create more incentives for people to go back to work,” and benefits to state and local governments.White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow cited positive signs as the economy reopens, telling CNN, “We are in the recovery stage.”center_img Topics :last_img read more

Leicester need to ‘reset mentally’ to reach Champions League, says Rodgers

first_img“I know we have a very young group, a young squad that is developing, but if you want to consistently compete at the very top end of this table it is a mindset,” said Leicester boss Rodgers.”I think we have shown over the course of the season we have got the talent but there is no doubt that we have to have a reset mentally if we are going to go and achieve what we want to achieve.”Rodgers said his team were still in a “fantastic” position.”We have been terrific for a lot of the season,” he said. “Our level has been high and somehow we need to work our way back to that.” Everton took an early two-goal lead at Goodison Park through Richarlison and Gylfi Sigurdsson, who scored from the penalty spot.Kelechi Iheanacho pulled one back for Leicester after the break but the visitors could not find an equaliser despite applying plenty of pressure.For Everton it was a result that maintained their late charge for a Europa League spot. With seven points from their past three games, Carlo Ancelotti’s side have seventh place in their sights.Everton defender Michael Keane felt beating Leicester was a declaration of intent.”We want to get into Europe and this was a must-win,” said Keane.”I don’t think we showed our full quality on the ball,” he added. “But the game was all about the result and we’ll take that all day.”Topics : Brendan Rodgers says Leicester need to “reset mentally” to stay in charge of their Champions League destiny after their slump continued with a 2-1 loss at Everton.The Foxes remain third in the Premier League but are fading, claiming just two points from their three games since the Premier League resumed.They were fortunate fourth-placed Chelsea failed to take advantage, also losing on Wednesday, but in-form Manchester United and Wolves are just three points behind with six games to play.last_img read more

Indonesians opt for secondhand cars amid slowing economy: Report

first_img“More than half of the respondents said they were thinking about buying a car within the next year, signaling great potential for the used cars market to grow,” said OLX Autos Indonesia CEO Johnny Widodo in a statement on Tuesday.OLX Autos, which was formerly known as BeliMobilGue.co.id, announced their rebranding on Tuesday as part of its further partnership with OLX Indonesia since its initial relationship in 2018.The partnership was said to broaden OLX Autos’ market in its offline and online platforms.    The used car industry, Johnny went on to say, would likely need two to three months to bounce back as demand returned. The automotive industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and the social restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus, which have dampened consumer spending and affected business activities.According to Indonesian Automotive Manufacturers Association (Gaikindo) data, domestic car sales fell by more than 95 percent year-on-year to only 3,551 units in May, a continuation of the downward trend seen since March.Gaikindo chairman Yohannes Nangoi previously said the “rock bottom” for car sales was seen in May, expressing hope that sales could start to recover as large-scale social restrictions (PSBB) were relaxed in various cities nationwide.Automotive industry expert Bebin Djuana, meanwhile, observed that people in general were not thinking about buying cars because of the decreased need to travel, weaker purchasing power and the prioritization of other needs.However, he still saw opportunities for growth in the secondhand car market, as people did not want to be burdened with car loan payments during this time.Read also: RI auto industry remains attractive: Fitch Solutions“There is currently a downward trend in used car prices because automotive manufacturers are cutting their prices amid the pandemic-induced economic slowdown,” Bebin told Post on Wednesday.“But as showrooms are offering discounts and new cars come with insurance, there will still be competition between the used and new car markets.”He also observed that people were turning to online marketplaces to buy used cars, adding that such consumer behavior would become more common, especially during the physical distancing period.“However, used car sellers are sometimes reluctant to use online marketplaces as they want to get paid immediately. They do not want to deal with complex third-party payment gateways,” Bebin said. Topics : Editor’s note: This article has been revised to correctly state that the marketplace’s name is OLX Autos Indonesia. Indonesian consumers are opting to buy used cars instead of new ones as the COVID-19 pandemic dampens people’s spending power.Muhammad Rizqullah, who goes by Kiki, said he bought a used car last week after trying to find one since April. The 24-year old non-governmental organization (NGO) employee who lives in Jakarta admitted he also looked into buying a new car, but even with the discount offered by online marketplaces, new ones were still out of his budget.”I bought the car because used car prices have gone down due to lower demand,” he told The Jakarta Post via text message on Thursday. Private company employee Deka Komanda, 23, also chose a secondhand car because he could get a better model compared to a new car at the same price.Read also: Aftermarket auto companies weather pandemic through online sales”If you have the funds, it is time to buy a car as prices are going down during this pandemic,” he said.A study titled The “New Normal” of Indonesia Used Car Industry by classified advertisements website OLX Indonesia and its used car dealership OLX Autos Indonesia showed that 54 percent of survey respondents said they were considering buying a used car instead of a new one.last_img read more

Over 1 million: India joins US, Brazil in grim coronavirus club

first_imgIndia on Friday became the third country in the world to record more than one million cases of the new coronavirus, behind only the United States and Brazil, as infections spread further into the countryside and smaller towns.Given India’s population of around 1.3 billion, experts say, one million is relatively low – but the number will rise significantly in the coming months as testing increases, further straining a healthcare system already pushed to the brink.The pandemic has surged in the country in recent weeks as it spread beyond the biggest cities, pushing India past Russia as the third-most-infected country last week. “In the coming months, we are bound to see more and more cases, and that is the natural progression of any pandemic,” said Giridhar Babu, epidemiologist at the nonprofit Public Health Foundation of India.”As we move forward, the goal has to be lower mortality,” he said. “A critical challenge states will face is how to rationally allocate hospital beds.”The last four months of the pandemic sweeping India have exposed severe gaps in the country’s healthcare system, which is one of the most poorly funded and has for years lacked enough doctors or hospital beds.The Indian government has defended a strict lockdown it imposed in March to contain the virus spread, saying it helped keep death rates low and allowed time to beef up the healthcare infrastructure. But public health experts say shortages remain and could hit hard in the coming months.”As a public health measure, I don’t think the lockdown had much impact. It just delayed the virus spread,” said Dr. Kapil Yadav, assistant professor of community medicine at New Delhi’s premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences.The million cases so far recorded likely left out many asymptomatic ones, he said. “It’s a gross underestimate.”Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take concrete steps to contain the pandemic, tweeting that the number of infections will double to two million by August 10 at this pace.Millions of migrant workers, left stranded in the cities by the lockdown in March, took long journeys home on foot, some dying on the way while others left without work or wages.Several states including Bihar, to which many of the migrants returned, have witnessed a surge in cases in recent weeks as the lockdown has been eased to salvage a sagging economy.Babu predicts India will not see a sharp peak and decline.”The surges are shifting from one place to another, so we cannot say there will be one peak for the whole country. In India, it’s going to be a sustained plateau for some time and then it will go down.”  Authorities imposed fresh lockdowns and designated new containment zones in several states this week, including the largely rural Bihar state in the east and the southern tech hub Bengaluru, where cases have spiked.But officials have the struggled to enforce the lockdowns and keep people indoors.India recorded 34,956 new infections on Friday, taking the total to 1,003,832, with 25,602 deaths from COVID-19, federal health ministry data showed. That compares to 3.6 million cases in the United States and 2 million in Brazil – countries with less than a third of India’s population.Epidemiologists say India is still likely months from hitting its peak.center_img Topics :last_img read more

Alternative rice products see double digit growth in demand amid trade disruption

first_imgThe market for foreign rice varieties in Indonesia is relatively small compared to regular rice. According to the latest available data compiled by the Agriculture Ministry, Indonesia imported 295,714 tons of “special” rice varieties compared to 987,500 tons of medium-grain rice in 2016.Read also: Ministry ramps up rice production amid farmers’ lossesThe special rice varieties comprise Thai hom mali, basmati, japonica, brown and low-glycemic rice, according to the ministry’s data.Despite the niche market for the products, Hery said the worldwide disruptions to trade had impacted rice imports, increasing demand for the cooperative’s products. According to Statistics Indonesia (BPS) data, the country booked a 14.28 percent year-on-year (yoy) decrease in imports between January and June.Furthermore, the rise of Indonesia’s upper-middle class has also supported demand growth for more expensive special rice varieties, which are considered healthier than regular rice.“We are targeting the growing upper-middle class segment. As they’re extremely concerned with product quality, we pack our products neatly and market them through online marketplaces to attract customers,” he said.Amid the growing demand for special rice varieties, Hery said high-quality seeds and fertilizers were crucial for successful cultivation. However, he added that the seeds sometimes were difficult to find.Meanwhile, the chairperson of the Bali-based Jagadhita Farming Cooperative, Nyoman Suma Artha, voiced similar concerns, and urged the government to focus on improving fertilizer and seed quality to increase yields.Nyoman said farmers in Bali could increase their rice production, in yield per hectare, by up to 5 tons by using high-quality fertilizers and seeds, double the yield rate of lower quality fertilizers.“We could produce between 8 to 10 tons of dried grains [per ha] if we use high-quality fertilizers and the right techniques, while lower quality fertilizers and seeds produce only around 5 tons [per ha],” he said.The Agriculture Ministry has set a rice production target of 62.5 million tons for 2021, 5 percent higher than this year’s target.Read also: Virus, climate change cause food shortages in parts of IndonesiaThe government has allocated Rp 18.4 trillion (US$1.26 billion) for the ministry’s 2021 budget, of which around half has been allocated for programs to ensure the availability and accessibility of high-quality food.However, Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo said on July 7 that the allocation would not be enough to finance policies to ramp up food production, and proposed an additional Rp 10 trillion in next year’s state budget to finance its planned policies.“The Rp 18.4 trillion budget allocated to the ministry for 2021 is far from sufficient for the economy to recover after the COVID-19 pandemic in villages that heavily rely on agriculture, and to meet the food production target set in the government’s working plan,” Syahrul said in a hearing with the House of Representatives.In 2019, prolonged drought led to a decline in Indonesia’s rice production, which was down 13.2 percent year-on-year to 16.1 million tons in the first half of 2020, according to the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Indonesia office.Topics : The disruptions to trade and falling imports caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a double-digit increase in demand for locally produced, high-quality, alternative rice products, farmer cooperatives have reported.Sales of high-quality foreign rice varieties and organic rice products such as Japonica rice, Basmati rice, Jasmine rice, and high-protein black rice have increased by 20 percent, Mintogoro Cooperative chairperson Hery Sugiarto told The Jakarta Post on Monday. The cooperative is based in Demak, Central Java.“Alhamdulillah [thank God] the pandemic impacted our business positively rather than the other way around, as demand for our products has increased 20 percent,” he said during an online webinar held by the Indonesian Seed Cooperative (Kobeta).last_img read more

Muslims begin downsized haj pilgrimage

first_imgWorkers, clutching brooms and disinfectant, were seen cleaning the area around the Kaaba, the structure at the center of the Grand Mosque draped in gold-embroidered cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.Haj authorities have cordoned off the Kaaba this year, saying pilgrims will not be allowed to touch it, to limit the chances of infection.They also reported setting up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims.The foreign press are barred from this year’s haj, usually a huge global media event, as the government tightens access to Mecca. “There are no security-related concerns in this pilgrimage, but [downsizing] is to protect pilgrims from the danger of the pandemic,” said Khalid bin Qarar Al-Harbi, Saudi Arabia’s director of public security.Pilgrims will be required to wear masks and observe social distancing during a series of religious rites that are completed over five days in the holy city of Mecca and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia.Those selected to take part in the haj were subject to temperature checks and placed in quarantine as they began trickling into Mecca at the weekend.State media showed health workers sanitizing their luggage, and some pilgrims reported being given electronic wristbands to allow authorities to monitor their whereabouts. Topics : Muslim pilgrims on Wednesday begin the annual haj, dramatically downsized this year as the Saudi hosts strive to prevent a coronavirus outbreak during the five-day pilgrimage.The haj, 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.center_img ‘Indescribable feeling’ Saudi authorities initially said only around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom would be permitted for the haj, but local media reports say as many as 10,000 will be allowed to take part.Some 70 percent of the pilgrims are foreigners residing in the kingdom, while the rest will be Saudi citizens, authorities said. All worshippers were required to be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Mecca and will also have to quarantine after the pilgrimage as the number of cases in the kingdom nears 270,000 — one of the largest outbreaks in the Middle East.They were given elaborate amenity kits that include sterilized pebbles for a stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a seamless white garment worn by pilgrims, according to a haj ministry program document.”I did not expect, among millions of Muslims, to be blessed with approval,” Emirati pilgrim Abdullah al-Kathiri said in a video released by the Saudi media ministry.”It is an indescribable feeling… especially since it is my first pilgrimage.”The haj ministry said non-Saudi residents of the kingdom from around 160 countries competed in the online selection process but it did not say how many people applied.Some disappointed applicants have complained that the government-run lottery was not clearly outlined and that no reason was given for their rejection. Economic slump The haj ministry has fielded a deluge of anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants.But Haj Minister Mohammad Benten insisted the process was transparent, telling the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television that “health determinants” formed the basis of selection.Despite the pandemic, many pilgrims consider it safer to participate in this year’s ritual without the usual colossal crowds cramming into tiny religious sites, which make it a logistical nightmare and a health hazard.Even in a regular year, the haj leaves pilgrims exposed to a host of illnesses.The government scaled back the pilgrimage as it could be a major source of contagion, but the move will deepen the kingdom’s economic slump, analysts say.Saudi Arabia is already facing a sharp downturn in oil prices due to a collapse in global demand driven by national lockdowns, which triggered austerity measures, including the tripling of a value added tax and cuts to civil servants’ allowances.The virus has also battered pilgrimage-reliant businesses that support hundreds of thousands of jobs in Mecca, from travel agents to street barbers and souvenir shops.The haj and the year-round umrah pilgrimages together rake in some $12 billion annually.last_img read more