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In this file picture, Muslim pilgrims pray as they watch thousands of pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba. The total number of coronavirus cases reported in Mecca, home to 2 million people, reached 1,050. Image Credit: AP Photo/Amr Nabil

Jeddah: Saudi authorities are racing to contain an outbreak of coronavirus in Mecca, where crowded areas have accelerated the spread even with much of the country under a 24-hour curfew, Bloomberg reported.

The total number of coronavirus cases reported in Mecca, home to 2 million people, reached 1,050 on Monday compared to 1,422 in the capital of Riyadh, a city more than three times the size. Mecca’s large number of undocumented immigrants and cramped housing for migrant workers have made it more difficult to slow the infection rate.

Role of foreigners

Overall, Saudi Arabia has reported one of the lowest rates of infection in the region, with around 5,000 cases in a population of over 30 million, according to Bloomberg. Mecca was one of the first Saudi cities to be placed under a full-day curfew, and authorities took unprecedented precautions, suspending religious tourism in February and closing mosques across the country in March.

The outbreak underlines a nationwide issue of soaring cases among foreign residents. Foreigners make up about a third of the Saudi population but account for 70 to 80 per cent of new cases recently, according to the health ministry - a rate that’s sparked debate about their role in society.

Bloomberg said that some Saudis have attacked foreigners, accusing them of price-gouging, fear-mongering and deliberately spreading infection. Others say that the solution lies in better living conditions for the blue collar foreigners who underpin daily life, driving garbage trucks and cleaning streets. Saudi novelist Mohammed Alwan recently wrote on Twitter that he hopes authorities will create “humane requirements for workers’ housing” after the pandemic.

Health minister Tawfiq Al Rabiah acknowledged the problem in a televised address on Monday, saying a government committee had been formed to deal with the issue.

The government has also promised free coronavirus treatment for foreign residents, including undocumented immigrants.