Makkah: Coronavirus leads to low key Hajj but full of spirituality for pilgrims

Saudi authorities remain on maximum alert for possible health emergencies. It is "reassuring" that no cases have emerged, Ministry of Health said. Participants were provided with masks, accommodation and medical coverage. “Allah fulfilled my desire to do the Hajj without any financial cost,” says Chinese Muslim.

Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – No health problems have emerged so far among pilgrims performing the Hajj, the major pilgrimage to Islam’s main holy sites, one of the five pillars of the religion, Ministry of Health spokesman Mohammed Al-Abd Al-Ali said on Thursday.

“It is reassuring … that no cases of coronavirus or any other diseases that affect public health have been reported,” he said during his daily Hajj briefing in Makkah.

This year’s pilgrimage has been cut back and only a few, no more than 10,000 people (70 per cent foreigners, 30 per cent Saudis) were able to participate compared to the 2.5 million, which represents the average of the last few years.

Saudi authorities noted that the health services are fully prepared and remain on high alert to respond to any problems with 1,456 hospital beds available, including 272 for intensive care, 331 for isolation, and more than 200 in emergency departments.

Whilst the attention of the authorities is focused on the health situation, the few pilgrims enjoy the peace and serenity of the holy places, a privilege almost impossible in the past.

"I couldn't stop myself from crying after Allah fulfilled my desire to do the Hajj without any financial cost," said Ni Haoyu, a 43-year-old Chinese Muslim.

In the midst of the pandemic, people from China consider it a privilege to be able to attend the event.

This year Saudi authorities decided to cover all expenses, providing food, accommodation and full health protection, to make this edition of Hajj safer than past ones, which saw epidemic outbreaks and incidents kill hundreds of people.

"I can perform my rituals away from crowds, which creates an atmosphere of spirituality and tranquillity," said Wajdan Ali, a 25-year-old Saudi nurse, who was selected after she recovered from COVID-19.

Pilgrims have received electronic bracelets to track movements and must comply with strict protocols, including wearing masks, physical distancing and periodic body temperature checks.

"I was chosen [. . .] I don't know why," said Cai Haobi, a 31-year-old Chinese student at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah.

For As-Shammar, a restaurant employee, how he was chosen does not matter, because what count is being present.

"I came to Saudi Arabia one year ago,” said the young Filipino. “I intended to perform the Hajj after two years after I save[d] up enough (money). But the coronavirus and the selection process helped me do Hajj this year instead."