Coronavirus: how will Hajj pilgrims be protected?

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Pilgrims arriving at the holy sites in Makkah will have a unique experience of the Hajj this year. Places that are usually crowded with people are almost empty and those who do attend must maintain strict social distancing in line with regulations to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The additional protocols introduced this year were outlined to The National by an official from the Makkah Health Authority. Hamed Al Atebi said this year's plan is divided into three phases, including the days leading up to the ritual on Wednesday 29, the pilgrims' journey, and the period after Hajj ends.

On an ordinary year, the Hajj draws up to three million visitors, but the number of pilgrims from abroad has been capped at about 1,000 this year to contain the outbreak.

“All those selected for this year’s Hajj have no underlying health conditions, are between the age of 20-60, and all tested negative for Covid-19,’ Mr Al Atebi explained.

During the pre-Hajj phase of the plan, pilgrims quarantined in their homes. On arrival in Makkah on the fourth day of Dhu Al Hijja, they were screened and remained in isolation in a hotel in Makkah until the start of their Hajj journey on Wednesday.

Electronic bracelets were distributed on arrival to ensure the isolation is maintained.

It’s not only the pilgrims who are required to observe isolation. “Every single person working in Hajj who will be in direct contact with the pilgrims, such as the health leaders, are in isolation for these days,” Mr Al Atebi said. All of them tested negative for Covid-19 prior to arrival.

Men wearing protective face masks stand as they work on raising the Kiswa, a silk cloth covering the Holy Kaaba, before the annual pilgrimage season, at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. REUTERS

A security man checks the temperature of a worker as they work on raising the Kiswa, a silk cloth covering the Holy Kaaba, before the annual pilgrimage season, at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. REUTERS

Workers wearing protective face masks work on raising the Kiswa, a silk cloth covering the Holy Kaaba, before the annual pilgrimage season, at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. REUTERS

The President of the Haramain Sheikh Abdul Rehman Al Sudais inspects the King Abdulaziz Gate at the Grand Mosque. SPA

Saudi officials and workers pose for a photo after inspections ahead of Hajj. SPA

The King Abdulaziz Gate at the Grand Mosque in Makkah. SPA

The Minister of Hajj and Umrah inspects the equipment prepared for the service of pilgrims this year

the Minister of Hajj and Umrah inspects the equipment prepared for the service of pilgrims this year

The Minister of Hajj and Umrah inspects the equipment prepared for the service of pilgrims this year

A few worshippers performing the fajr prayer at the Grand Mosque in Makkah. Saudi Arabia has announced it will hold a "very limited" Hajj this year. AFP

Saudi Arabia's authorities said only a limited number of people, who are already in Saudi Arabia, will be able to perform the Hajj amid a spike of cases and deaths in the kingdom. AFP

Arab countries have expressed their support for Saudi Arabia's decision to ban pilgrims from abroad attending the Hajj pilgrimage this year to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. AFP

Arafat mountain in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Makkah. Egypt, home of Al Azhar, one of the Muslim world’s main centres of learning, quickly came out in support of the decision. AFP

Egyptan Religious Affairs Minister Mukhtar Jumah described the downsizing as “practical” and “conforming with jurisprudence regarding the pandemic”. AFP

Hundreds of thousands usually perform Hajj every year. AFP

Bahraini Justice and Islamic Affairs Minister Khaled Bin Khalifa said the ban “conforms with the core values of Islam” and that Bahrain appreciates what he described as Saudi Arabia’s quest to save lives. AFP

The Emirates Hajj Affairs Office said Saudi Arabia's move “preserves the health of the people and their lives, which is one of the main purposes of our honoured religion”. AFP

Part of the Grand Mosque complex in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Makkah. AFP

During last year’s Hajj, health workers were deployed at more than eight hospitals and 93 health clinics in the holy sites around Makkah.

This year the situation is different, with only about 1,000 hajiis allowed to perform the Muslim ritual, as announced by Hajj Minister Mohammad Benten in June.

During the five or six-day period of the Hajj, a number of seasonal hospitals will still be readied in addition to mobile clinics, which act as full-service health centres, and mobile hospitals equipped to cater for more severe cases with intensive care beds.

“These mobile hospitals will accompany the pilgrims during the performance of the rituals as they move from Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah then back to Mina,’ Mr Al Atebi added.

This year’s pilgrims were made aware of the guidelines for Hajj 2020 during a health awareness session over Zoom on Sunday.

Each group will be assigned a health leader to accompany them around the clock to cater to health requirements and ensure they are aware of the precautions and regulations in place.

Medical equipment has also been placed in the pilgrims’ accommodation facilities while thermal cameras and visual triage teams are ready at every point of arrival throughout the hajj journey. If a pilgrim shows symptoms of Covid-19, they will immediately be isolated to ensure the rest of the group can continue the journey safely.

The most important part of the ritual is Waqfat Arafat, which takes place on the ninth Thursday of Al Hijja in which the pilgrim must stay at the holy site from dawn to sunset. If a pilgrim misses this step, their Hajj is not accepted.

“We prepared the seasonal hospital in Arafat, only for confirmed Covid-19 cases, to be able to facilitate their hajj,” Mr Al Atebi said.

Groups will enter the holy sites at different times, staggering their journeys to ensure social distancing can be maintained. Pilgrims will also be encouraged to wash their hands regularly throughout and masks must be worn at all times.

At the end of the Hajj, the pilgrims will go into isolation for seven days before returning to their homes across Saudi Arabia.

Updated: July 28, 2020 03:31 PM

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