Pilgrims wearing masks began trickling into Makkah over the weekend. Upon arrival, they were subject to temperature checks, placed under quarantine, and given elaborate amenity kits that include sterilized pebbles for a stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram. Pilgrims were selected from a pool of health practitioners and military personnel who have recovered from COVID-19.
Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Saudi Arabia will begin hosting the annual Hajj pilgrimage next Wednesday, dramatically downscaled due to the coronavirus pandemic that has barred millions of international pilgrims for the first time in modern history.
As a result, Muslims who do not live in Saudi Arabia will not be able to attend the event, which annually attracts around 2.5 million people. Last March, during the early stages of the pandemic, Riyadh said that it would suspend travel to sacred places, reserving the right to cancel the event or hold a smaller version with a symbolic number of faithful.
Saudi authorities initially said only around a thousand pilgrims from within the kingdom would be permitted to take part in the Hajj but local media reported that as many as 10,000 would be allowed. However, many deemed the selection process opaque with people from around 160 countries competing in the online selection process - that saw most applications rejected.
Saudi Arabia Hajj ministry said foreign residents would make up 70 per cent of all selected pilgrims.
The foreign press was also barred from this year's hajj, usually a huge global media event, as the government tightened access to the holy city of Makkah and put in place strict health restrictions to prevent a virus outbreak during the five-day pilgrimage, a key pillar of Islam.
So far, Saudi Arabia has reported more than 260,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, while the number of deaths tops 2,700.
Pilgrims wearing masks began trickling into Makkah over the weekend. They were subjected to temperature checks and placed under quarantine, the authorities said.
They were given elaborate amenity kits that include sterilized pebbles for a stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a seamless white garment worn by pilgrims.
Pilgrims are required to be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Makkah and will also have to quarantine after the pilgrimage.
The ministry said it has set up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims, who will be required to observe social distancing.
The ministry has said the Saudi pilgrims were selected from a pool of health practitioners and military personnel who have recovered from COVID-19.
The attention of the authorities is concentrated on the major pilgrimage, which was the scene of epidemics and incidents in the past. In 2015, for example, hundreds of pilgrims died in a stampede.
Despite the pandemic, many pilgrims consider it is safer to participate in this year's ritual without the usual huge crowds crammed in the small religious sites, which represent a logistical nightmare and a health hazard. Even in a regular year, the Hajj leaves pilgrims exposed to a host of viral illnesses.
The virus has also badly affected pilgrimage-dependent businesses that support hundreds of thousands of jobs in Makkah, from travel agents to street barbers and souvenir shops.
Many have reported large-scale layoffs, pay cuts and delayed salaries.