DEFYING PESTILENCE, war and earthquakes, Muslims have made the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca for 14 centuries. The ritual attracts millions of the faithful from around the world. But not this year. To halt the spread of covid-19, Saudi Arabia has restricted participation in the haj, which begins on July 28th. Reports say only between 1,000 and 10,000 people, who are already in the kingdom, will take part. Historians searching for a comparable disruption hark back a millennium to the year 930, when the Qarmatians, a revolutionary Shia sect, pillaged Mecca and stole the sacred Black Stone.
The decision to curtail access to one of Islam’s five pillars could not have been easy for Saudi Arabia. King Salman, like his predecessors, prides himself on the kingdom’s jurisdiction over Mecca, which allows him to claim leadership of the Muslim world. His titles include “custodian of the two holy mosques”, referring to the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. But a normal haj risked becoming a “super-spreader event” for the kingdom—and the world.
Saudi Arabia, with a population of 35m, has had about 265,000 confirmed cases of covid-19 and just over 2,700 deaths. New cases, after spiking in June, have been decreasing of late (see chart). The haj, though, risked giving the disease new momentum. The pilgrimage lasts five or six days, depending on the lunar Islamic calendar. Crowds are often packed into tight spaces, sometimes nine to a square metre. The traditional garments worn by men leave part of the upper body exposed, leading to much skin-on-skin contact. Pilgrims also share food and razors in order to shave their heads, part of the ritual for men. Many grow tired and dehydrated from the exertion. Germs and infections from all over the world have little trouble spreading in such an environment.
Concerns over the haj and contagion are nothing new. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the pilgrimage was seen as a primary conduit for disease. Tens of thousands of pilgrims died in cholera outbreaks in 1821 and 1865, which spread to other regions. World powers stepped in through a series of international sanitary conferences between 1851 and 1938, leading to pilgrims being quarantined and inspected. The waters of the sacred Zamzam well in Mecca, from which pilgrims drink, were even sterilised. More recently there have been outbreaks of meningococcal disease, gastrointestinal illnesses, pneumonia and flu.
In 2012 an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), another deadly disease caused by a coronavirus, led to criticism of the Saudi government. After some initial co-operation, Western virologists accused the Saudis of turning suspicious and stubborn. The kingdom rejected offers of help from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other international experts, who are better able to track the disease. Because MERS is not as easily spread as covid-19, it is less of a risk to the world. Still, concern over it led to lower haj attendance in 2013, when the government asked elderly and chronically ill Muslims to stay at home, and capped the number of pilgrims.
Lately the Saudi government has taken steps to lower the risk of the haj spreading disease. It has installed 21,000 extra toilets and begun approving barbers who shave pilgrims at the end of the pilgrimage. Thousands of health-care workers offer free care to those in need. Pilgrims are required to be vaccinated against diseases such as meningitis; those who are especially vulnerable, such as pregnant women, are told not to come. The government has even developed an electronic early-warning system with the WHO. It scans records from hospitals and clinics and sounds an alarm with haj organisers if there are early signs of an outbreak.
Still, some are pushing a safer option. For centuries Muslim mystics have urged believers to prioritise the spiritual haj over the terrestrial one. Today some sheikhs are echoing that call (in part to tweak Saudi Arabia). Software developers have created apps offering Muslims a virtual pilgrimage. A “hajplication” developed by Ahmed Alhaddad, a Kenyan computer engineer, connects would-be pilgrims to proxies in Mecca who livestream the experience. For $500, a fraction of the cost of a real trip, customers can maintain social distance and avoid walking miles in 50°C heat. “Easy process, same blessings,” says Mr Alhaddad’s website.
The Saudi government may disagree. Religious pilgrimages netted it $12bn last year, accounting for the largest chunk of GDP after oil. Muhammad bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler, has built up Mecca, hoping to make billions more dollars, while creating 100,000 new jobs. It is all part of his plan to wean the Saudi economy off oil. But the government aimed to attract 15m foreign pilgrims outside of haj by 2020. Last year only 7.5m showed up. And this year, thanks to covid-19, the number will be much lower.
By The Economist https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2020/07/27/saudi-arabia-has-put-strict-limits-on-this-years-haj