Saudi Arabia began hosting the second downsized Hajj amid the coronavirus pandemic on Saturday this month (July 17). Residents who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus are permitted and overseas Muslim pilgrims are barred for the second year as well. Last year, Saudi Arabia saw zero virus outbreaks during the five-day Muslim ritual.
This time the number of pilgrims is higher than in 2020. The authority has allowed 60,000 residents of Saudi Arabia to participate in Hajj. 2020 Hajj was of the smallest scale in modern history, with authorities initially saying only 1,000 pilgrims were allowed but local media said up to 10,000 took part. In 2019, before the pandemic hit us, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world participated in the annual Hajj, a key pillar of Islam that is a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime.
During the selection of pilgrims, priority was given to people who have not performed Hajj in the past five years, and those over the age of 50 who have not previously been on Hajj. Chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, the event is confined to those who have been fully vaccinated and are aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses.
Earlier this month, the Hajj Ministry said it was working on the highest levels of health precautions in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants. Aside from strict social distancing measures, the Ministry said it will introduce a “smart hajj card” to allow contact-free access to camps, hotels and buses to ferry pilgrims around religious sites. The card system would also help track down any missing pilgrims.
Authorities have deployed black-and-white robots to dispense bottles of sacred water from the Zamzam spring in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, built around the Kaaba, the black cubic structure towards which Muslims around the world pray. The revered Black Stone in the Kaaba, which it is customary but not mandatory to touch during the pilgrimage, is expected to be kept out of reach.
Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 503,000 coronavirus cases, including over 8,000 deaths. More than 20 million vaccine doses against coronavirus have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.