While the world is still in anxiety about the Covid-19 pandemic and the newly emerged monkeypox, Saudi Arabia invites over one million pilgrims to perform Hajj.
Muslims from all over the world are about to gather in Saudi Arabia this week on Wednesday to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage after two years. Due to the wild and worldwide spread of Covid-19, the Kingdom banned the ritual for two years. In the first year of the pandemic in 2020, only 1,000 Hajj pilgrims were allowed to take part, but then the number rose to about 60,000 in 2021, with only Saudi residents being allowed to perform the Hajj. Before the pandemic, more than 2.5 million people used to participate in the Hajj ritual each year.
But with the decline in the number of infections in the world including in Saudi Arabia, more Muslims can come to the country once again and fulfill this religious obligation. This year, Saudi officials announced they can accept one million Muslims to perform the rites.
The Saudi government removed several COVID-19 restrictions last month to make sure it is safe for Muslims around the world to come to the Kingdom for this year’s Hajj. One of them was letting go of mask mandates that were around across the country for months.
According to the Kingdom’s Ministry of Interior, “masking will no longer be needed in closed spaces except in the Grand Mosque”, the holiest site in Islam. The event is also of pivotal importance for Saudi Arabia in economic terms as hosting over one million pilgrims could create a great opportunity for the Kingdom’s tourism industry.
“Religious tourism in Saudi Arabia serves as a crucial foundation to build out the broader Saudi tourism sector and market it to local, regional, and international audiences,” said Robert Mogielnicki, a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Good to mention here that the holy city of Mecca attracted well over $20 billion in tourist dollars in 2018, much of it was thanks to the Hajj pilgrimage of that year.
Still concerned about infections
No doubt that the world is now in better condition compared to the last two years. However, it is still reasonable to fear Covid-19 as the virus is still around. Fears grow, especially when over one million people from different parts of the world are about to gather in one place for long hours.
To make matters worse, the Kingdom removed masking mandates last month, which means pilgrims are not going to put on masks if they don’t want to. Over the past two years, there have been approximately 787,000 recorded cases and more than 9,100 deaths in Saudi Arabia alone, while the country has only 34 million populations. But it is not just the coronavirus that is threatening this year’s Hajj.
Last week on Tuesday, the World Health Organization reported a 77 percent increase in the number of lab-confirmed monkeypox cases compared to the week before. This has left more than 6,000 infected cases worldwide in 62 countries, with three people dead in connection with the outbreak.
In addition, the WHO announced this week that it will hold a new emergency monkeypox meeting as cases continue to surge globally. “I continue to be concerned about the scale and spread of the virus,” said WHO Director-General Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press briefing this Wednesday, adding also that “testing remains a challenge, and it’s highly probable a significant number of cases are not being picked up.”