By Abrita Kuthumi
Photo credit: BBC News
The Saudi Arabian government has announced its safety protocols regarding the annual holy Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca amid the coronavirus. To prevent the spread of the virus that has accumulated to a total of 268,934 confirmed cases with the 2,760 deaths in Saudi Arabia so far according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the government’s most impactful instruction has been to curb international visitors.
Therefore, for 2020, the Hajj Ministry of Saudi Arabia has limited the number of domestic pilgrims to be between 1,000 to 10,000. Of those, 70% will be foreign residents living in Saudi Arabia whereas the remaining 30% will be Saudi citizens. The foreign residents are required to be between the age of 20 and 50, in good health, and visiting Mecca for the first time. As for the Saudi citizen pilgrims, priorities will be given to essential workers such as healthcare workers and security personnel who have survived and recovered from coronavirus as “a token of appreciation for their role in providing care.”
The Hajj Ministry has also made alterations during the prayer. Typically, prayers are held in tight spaces with people positioned shoulder-to-shoulder through the five days of rites. This year, pilgrims will be asked to practice social distance during the prayer. They will not be allowed to touch the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site and metaphorical God to avoid transmission through high touch surfaces. The holy water will be bottled plastic water and pebbles used to throw will be sterilized beforehand. People will also be required to wear masks and bring their own rugs.
The Health Ministry spokesman Mohammed Abdelali of Saudi Arabia explained this safety measures by stating, “protecting the pilgrims… and the sacred sites from the arrival of this disease is very important [...] Saudi Arabia feels a sense of responsibility, therefore we took these temporary decisions, which will constantly be reviewed.”
Prior to the pandemic, the Hajj pilgrimage drew around 2.5 million people from all over the world. Pilgrims start making their way to Saudi Arabia starting Ramadan, the holy fasting month. However, this is no longer an option for Muslims living outside Saudi Arabia. The most impacted country is Indonesia which has the world’s largest Muslim population. Previously, around 150,000-200,000 Indonesian pilgrims would make this journey. These decisions have hurt the economy of Saudi Arabia, a country that was already struggling from decrease in oil demands due to national lockdowns. Saudi Arabia on a normal year rakes about $12 billion through the Hajj. With the sharp decrease in tourism, Saudi Arabia’s benchmark stock index has decreased by 1.1% as tourism-related firms such as business for Jabal Omar Development, Seera Group, and Al Hokair Group were dry this year.