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COVID versus Saudi Arabia: Will the Hajj Prove Dangerous?

posted on: Jul 6, 2022

Saudi reports highest daily new COVID-19 infections so far | Reuters
Saudi Arabia dropped the vaccination requirement just as the first post-COVID Hajj travelers arrive. (Photo: Reuters)

By: Riley Bryant / Arab America Contributing Writer

For better or for worse, 2022 has been a year of reopenings as the global community begins to build immunities to COVID-19. In Saudi Arabia, the COVID rate has been moderate, but steady. Part of that stability has come from strict COVID precautions, including mask wearing and vaccine requirements. However, just in time for the country to welcome over 850,000 faithful travelers this Eid al-Adha, the Saudi government has eased up on these precautions, alarming some and threatening many.

Not Messing Around

Since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, Saudi Arabia has taken some of the most stringent moves against the virus. In addition to the mask mandates and social distancing seen globally, the Saudis went as far as to prohibit Saudi citizens from leaving the country, and nearly anybody from coming inside. Earlier in the pandemic, mandates were strictly enforced, and vaccine verification was present at nearly every indoor establishment.

As time has gone on, these measures have been taken less and less seriously, as COVID numbers begin to stabilize and more of the country becomes vaccinated. With this in mind, it is understandable why the Ministry of Health would be open to ending these measures.

Global Events: a COVID Breeding Ground

Pilgrims walk around the Kabba at the Grand Mosque, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 31, 2020. (Saudi Ministry of Media via AP)
Saudi Arabia is estimated to expect between 850,000 and 1 million foreign visitors this Hajj. (Photo: Associated Press)

While the moves might be logical from a domestic point of view, they could not have come at a worse time. This weekend is Eid al-Adha, the second of Islam’s holy Eids, which traditionally is the time when hundreds of thousands of devoted Muslims make their Hajj to Mecca. To make this year’s event even more notable, it is the first to take place since the start of the pandemic (2020 and 2021 saw visitor caps at 10,000 and 60,000, respectively; dreadfully lower than this year’s 850,000). As the first Hajj weekend post-COVID, however, it also serves as a sort of guinea pig for future years that need to take viral diseases into account.

The Hajj is not the first global event to take place post-COVID. Most notably, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo trudged on in July 2021, amid several protests from the Japanese public who argued that it will only spike the already tedious COVID situation. In the weeks after the Games, Tokyo’s public health system was pushed to the limit as the country experienced the largest spike it had ever before. It is argued that this is due to the large influx of people during the Olympics.

However, it is unclear if Tokyo’s fate will befall Mecca and Medina. Initially, it seems as though Japan took exponentially more care against the spread of the disease, confining visitors in a “bubble” apart from the public, testing daily, and barring spectators. Yet, the COVID protections of a year ago are far inferior to those of today. In Japan, only 17% of the local population was vaccinated; today, 72% of Saudis are fully vaccinated. It is unclear what sort of effect the difference will have on the Hajj. For reference, the vaccination rate of visitors is about the same (80% of foreign Olympic staff, and 76% of Hajj pilgrims), though the overall quantity is drastically different (90,500 Olympic staff, versus the anticipated 850,000 pilgrims- a nearly 10-fold difference).

Holding Their Breath

The first pilgrims have already begun to arrive in Mecca, and everything seems to be okay so far. Although requirements have been lifted in the majority of public spaces, Saudi Arabia is still requiring masks and vaccines for those visiting the holy sites, as well as largely crowded and traffic-ridden places along the Hajj route. Additionally, independent organizers and business owners still maintain the right to require masks within their own spheres of influence.

Regardless, the uncertainty around Saudi Arabia’s COVID situation is nerve-racking for more than just Saudi citizens. Even their peninsular neighbors, most notably the UAE, have expressed concern for the upcoming Hajj season and the lack of proper COVID protocols. In response to the actions of the Saudi Ministry of Health, the UAE has proceeded to crack down on mask-wearing and vaccine mandates in an effort to maintain stable positivity rates.

COVID or not, the Hajj is meant to be a time of spiritual devotion and renouncement of all things vain and unnecessary. It is remarkable that it is able to be hosted this year despite all the difficulties. To all our readers who may be embarking on this epic journey, we here at Arab America wish you a safe and fulfilling trip. For those who celebrate, Eid Mubarak this weekend!

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