The Hajj pilgrimage – among the five pillars of the Islamic faith – is markedly different this year. After its start on Tuesday, few pilgrims were seen circling the Kaaba while following social distancing, as opposed to lakhs who occupy the place every year.
Because of the pandemic, the number of attending devotees has been drastically scaled down, from an estimated 25 lakh in 2019 to around 1,000 locals and resident foreigners this year. This is the first time since it began ruling Mecca about a century ago that Saudi Arabia has had to stop Muslim pilgrims from entering the country for the annual pilgrimage.
To keep Covid-19 infections at a minimum, the Saudi government has also enforced strict social distancing rules and employed contact tracing technology. It is covering all travel, accommodation, food, and healthcare expenses of the admitted pilgrims this year.
The country has so far recorded over 2.7 lakh Covid-19 infections, and more than 2,800 deaths.
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Why the Hajj pilgrimage is important for Muslims
The Hajj is a pillar of Islam, required of all Muslims once in a lifetime. It is a physically demanding journey that Muslims believe offers a chance to wipe clean past sins and start anew before God.
During the pilgrimage, Muslims following a route once walked by Prophet Muhammad, and also follow rites related to the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail (Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible).
Despite the physical challenges, many people rely on canes or crutches and insist on walking the routes. Those who cannot afford the hajj are sometimes financed by charities or community leaders. Others save their entire lives to make the journey.
Over 2 lakh from India had registered to travel for Hajj in 2020, and the Ministry of Minority Affairs in June announced a full refund of all money deposited by applicants.
Who are the pilgrims for Hajj 2020?
The attendees have been selected through an online process, two-thirds being foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia, and the remaining one-third locals. Applicants had to be between 20 to 50 years of age, having no symptoms of the virus or terminal illnesses. Those who had not made the pilgrimage before were preferred.
In Mecca, pilgrims had to go through four days of quarantine in hotels, after previously completing quarantine in their homes. According to an AP report, they will be moving in small groups of 20 to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the virus. At the Grand Mosque, they must maintain 1.5 meters of space between each other.
For contact tracing, Saudi authorities have given pilgrims wristbands that connect to their phones, thus being able to monitor their movement. After the end of the pilgrimage on Sunday, attendees will again be quarantined for a week.
As part of the measures, pilgrims will be eating prepackaged meals alone in their hotel rooms, and consume holy water from the Zamzam well that has been packaged in plastic bottles. They have also been given their own prayer rugs, and are provided special attire laced with silver nano technology that Saudi authorities say helps kill bacteria and makes clothes water resistant, the AP report said.
The Stoning of the Devil ceremony will also be different. While pilgrims usually pick pebbles along Hajj routes to throw at pillars symbolising the devil, this year they will get sterilised pebbles that have been bagged beforehand.
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