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Devout at a distance in contagion-hit Brunei

SINGAPORE – When Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah delivered an address at the opening of Brunei’s annual legislative session on March 9, he expressed gratitude to “God” that his nation remained free of Covid-19 infections. At the time, the oil-rich Borneo sultanate was still one of the last countries in Southeast Asia without a confirmed case.

The monarch began an otherwise down-to-earth speech on the economic repercussions of the viral global pandemic for energy-dependent Brunei by ascribing the Islamic nation’s virus-free status to divine “protection” gained through prayer.  

“Brunei is constantly praying, in our mosques, houses and assemblies. With continued prayers, Brunei will continue to receive divine blessings and protection,” said the sultan, one of the world’s few remaining absolute rulers, in his speech officiating the Legislative Council (LegCo) sitting.

Hours after his speech, Brunei confirmed its first Covid-19 case.

Within days, there were dozens of new cases linked to Bruneians returning from a mass gathering of pious Muslims in Malaysia organized by the missionary Tablighi Jamaat movement in late February, Southeast Asia’s largest coronavirus cluster to date with confirmed infections in multiple countries.  

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