BANGKOK — A recent religious pilgrimage to Indonesia emerges as a new cluster of coronavirus infections after a group of southern Muslims defied health advisories and took part in the trip amid the outbreak.
Of the 111 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday in Thailand, 42 were from an all-male group of Muslims in southern provinces that visited Indonesia for a pilgrimage called dawah. Their trip led to dozens of infections in recent weeks and many more placed in quarantine, including airline staff.
“We have already issued a statement that such meetings should be stopped since they can spread the virus,” Wisut Binlateh, head of the Sheikhul Islam Office’s southern chapter, said by phone. “The heads of these groups usually agree, but the more pious were probably unable to come to terms with not going on the trip.”
The Sheikhul Islam Office, the national Islamic authority recognized by the government, considered this type of dawah to be outside mainstream practice of Islam.
“This is a group of Muslims that have a way of doing religious activities different from most people. They abide by ways of thought from India and Pakistan,” Wisut said.
The group of 76 arrived in Thailand Monday via a charter flight from Jakarta to Hat Yai International Airport, with a staff of 35 onboard. Another 24 pilgrims were barred from flying out of Indonesia and they are currently staying at a hotel there.
Officials say those who returned were placed in quarantine in Satun and the four Deep South provinces of Songkhla, Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala.
Of the 42 who tested positive, 16 are quarantined at Songkhla Rajabhat University Satun Campus, 10 at Southern Lak Muang Stadium in Songkhla, seven at Pattani Province Stadium, another seven at the Deep South Public Health Development Center in Yala, and two at Saengthum School in Narathiwat.
But Khaosod reporters in Songkhla noticed that those quarantined at the Southern Lak Muang Stadium were able to come outside freely, raising questions whether others outside the quarantine risk an infection.
The 35 Lion Air staff who flew with the pilgrims are also put in quarantine at a hotel in Songkhla, but they have not shown symptoms of COVID-19 so far. Of the total number of people on the charter flight, 76 travellers plus 35 staff, 80 percent tested positive for the COVID-19.
A video taken of the meeting in Indonesia shows the Thai group drinking tea after a religious ceremony. Indonesia currently has 2,956 people infected with the coronavirus.
“Some people are afraid of death, but not afraid of Allah,” the man in the video says. “We have to get recompense from Allah, not from others.”
The southern region is fast emerging as a new hotbed of coronavirus infection.
Yala is now the third-most infected province after Phuket and Bangkok, numbering 12.7 people infected per 100,000. Pattani clocks in at sixth with 7.6, followed by Satun at seventh with five per 100,000, and Songkhla at tenth with 3.3 per 100,000. The group of pilgrims were the first in Satun to test positive for COVID-19.
Borders with Malaysia closed March 23 in order to contain the outbreak. Even an active armed militant group acknowledged the growing spread of coronavirus in the region, and announced a ceasefire on April 3.
The Muslim community also moved to discourage large gatherings. On Sunday, the Sheikhul Islam Office cancelled Friday prayers as one of their guidelines for practicing Islam during the time of COVID-19 epidemic.
Wisut, the official from Sheikhul Islam Office, said dawah meetings in Indonesia centered around proselytization and building ties with other Muslims worldwide.
“Some people abide by rules of going for three days every month or for 40 days per year, or even four months per year. If they have the resources, they go overseas,” Wisut said.
But even with the rise of infection cases associated with the pilgrimage, it is far from an uncontrolled outbreak like the one caused by a boxing match at Lumpinee Stadium, which went ahead despite a closure order.
Sirima Teerasak, director of the Ministry of Public Health’s Bureau of Information, said that she believed the group would not be a “super spreader” cluster, unlike what happened at the Lumpinee Boxing Stadium.
“This group won’t spread the virus because we have them all contained immediately. This is similar to Thais who returned from Wuhan,” Sirima said. “They are safe for Thais.”
On Feb. 4, 138 Thais were evacuated from Wuhan and immediately placed in quarantine. Only one of them turned out to be infected with the coronavirus.