MAKKAH: The biggest hajj pilgrimage since the COVID pandemic began kicked off Wednesday, with hundreds of thousands of mostly maskless worshippers expected to circle Islam’s holiest site in Makkah. One million fully vaccinated Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed at this year’s hajj, a major break from two years of drastically curtailed numbers due to the pandemic.
At Makkah’s Grand Mosque, pilgrims performed the “tawaf”, the circumambulation of the Kaaba, the large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth that Muslims around the world turn towards to pray. Authorities said last month that masks would be required at the site, but that has been largely ignored so far this week.
Many pilgrims held umbrellas to block the hot sun as the temperature climbed to 42 degrees Celsius. The Saudi health ministry has prepared 23 hospitals and 147 health centers in Makkah and Madinah, the second-holiest city in Islam, to accommodate pilgrims, state media reported this week. That includes allocating more than 1,000 beds for patients requiring intensive care and more than 200 specifically for heatstroke patients, while dispatching more than 25,000 health workers to respond to cases as they arise.
The pilgrimage consists of a series of religious rites which are completed over five days in Islam’s holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia. On Thursday, the pilgrims will move to Mina, around five kilometers away from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the main rite at Mount Arafat, where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) delivered his final sermon. Four hospitals and 26 health centers are ready to treat pilgrims in Mina, state media said.
This year’s hajj is restricted to vaccinated Muslims under the age of 65 chosen from millions of applicants through an online lottery system. Those coming from outside Saudi Arabia were required to submit a negative COVID-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel. Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 795,000 coronavirus cases, more than 9,000 of them fatal.
Those attempting to perform the hajj without a permit face fines of 10,000 Saudi riyals (around $2,600). Policemen in the mountainous city have set up checkpoints and conducted foot patrols. Some pilgrims have donned clothing featuring the names and flags of their countries. “Hajj 2020 – Chad” was written on the back of the white robes of one group. Saudi Arabia now allows women to attend the hajj unaccompanied by male relatives, a requirement that was dropped last year. – AFP