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Thursday Jul 30 2020
By
AFP

COVID-19: Social distancing measures mean this may be ‘safest’ Hajj ever

By
AFP
A picture taken on July 29, 2020 shows pilgrims circumambulating around the Kaaba at the centre of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah at the start of the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage. Photo: AFP

MAKKAH: This year’s annual Hajj pilgrimage, despite the fact that it is taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed over 650,000 people worldwide, may prove to be the safest one ever.

In past years pilgrims have faced a host of viral illnesses, with some falling sick, but a raft of measures are in place for the relatively modest number allowed to attend this year.

The Hajj is usually attended by upwards of two million Muslims, who converge on the Saudi city Makkah for one of the world's biggest annual gatherings.

That poses enormous health and logistical challenges.

In the past, pilgrims returning home have developed respiratory diseases after mingling with large crowds and staying in cramped pilgrim camps where social distancing was unheard of.

Kuwaiti worshipper Alia al-Dulaimi told AFP she suffered a severe cough for three months after performing the pilgrimage in 2003.

"I couldn't even get close to the Kaaba at the time because of how many people were there," she said.

"I wish I was in Makkah this year to see the new health measures," Dulaimi said.

Saudi officials sterilize pebbles

This year, for the first time in modern history, Saudi officials have drastically restricted the number of pilgrims allowed to participate and enforced strict new health measures.

Just 10,000 Muslims, all resident in the kingdom, are being allowed to perform the Hajj — 0.4% of last year's 2.5 million attendees from across the globe.

But despite the pandemic, many pilgrims said they felt safer joining a limited number of fellow faithful for the Hajj as the risk of both infection and logistical upsets was limited.

A stampede in 2015 that killed up to 2,300 worshippers was one of a series of deadly incidents that had sparked criticism of how the pilgrimage was managed.

But the scene on Wednesday was a vast contrast to that: mask-clad pilgrims performed the Tawaf, in small groups, following carefully spaced routes marked on the white marble floor.

Workers continuously cleaned and disinfected the holy site on Wednesday, in uniforms resembling those of hospital staff.

Pilgrims had to undergo COVID-19 tests before arriving in Makkah and will be required to quarantine afterwards.

Attendees were given elaborate amenity kits that included sterilised pebbles for the ritual Stoning of the Devil, disinfectant, masks and a prayer rug, according to the hajj ministry.

Several health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances were on hand, the ministry added, available to pilgrims who were required to wear masks and maintain social distance.

Asif Ahmed, a professor at Britain's Aston Medical School, declared this year's Hajj "safe" because of the preventative measures.

"The focus is to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, and that seems to be working," he told AFP.

"We will know for sure in a month or so."

Saudi officials had initially said just 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom would be permitted to participate, but local media reports say as many as 10,000 will join in.

Some 70% of the pilgrims are foreigners residing in the kingdom, while the rest are Saudis, authorities said.

In March, Riyadh suspended the year-round umrah pilgrimage, as the number of global coronavirus cases continued to climb.

The kingdom has so far recorded more than 270,000 coronavirus cases, the largest toll among the Arab Gulf states.

"This year's Hajj was a good opportunity for the Saudi authorities to learn about the effects and importance of wearing a mask in curbing the spread of diseases among pilgrims," infectious diseases doctor Ghanem al-Hujailan told AFP.