MAKKAH: Pilgrims began arriving in the holy city of Makkah on Saturday for the second Haj during the coronavirus pandemic, circling Islam’s holiest site in masks and on distanced paths.

The kingdom is allowing only 60,000 fully vaccinated residents to take part, seeking to repeat last year’s success that saw no virus outbreak during the ritual.

This year’s Haj, with participants chosen through a lottery, is larger than the pared-down version organised in 2020 but drastically smaller than in normal times, giving rise to sadness among Muslims abroad who have been barred once again.

After being loaded on buses and brought to the Grand Mosque, pilgrims began performing the tawaf. Many carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching summer heat.

“Every three hours, 6,000 people enter to perform the tawaf of arrival,” Haj Ministry spokesman Hisham al-Saeed said. “After each group leaves, a sterilisation process is carried out at the sanctuary.”

Among the lucky individuals chosen for Haj this year is Ameen, a 58-year-old Indian oil contractor based in the eastern city of Dammam, who was picked for the ritual along with his wife and three adult children.

“We are overjoyed,” said Ameen. “So many of our friends and relatives were rejected.”

Like the other countries of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia is home to significant expatriate populations from South Asia, the Far East, Africa as well as the Middle East.

“I feel like I won a lottery,” Egyptian pharmacist Mohammed El Eter said after being selected. “This is a special, unforgettable moment in one’s life. I thank God for granting me this chance, to be accepted among a lot of people who applied,” the 31-year-old said.

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, according to the Haj Ministry.

The ministry has said it is working on the “highest levels of health precautions” in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.

Pilgrims will be divided into groups of just 20 “to restrict any exposure to only those 20, limiting the spread of infection”, ministry undersecretary Mohammad al-Bijawi told official media.

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths. Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34m people.

The Haj went ahead last year on the smallest scale in modern history. Authorities initially said only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, although local media said up to 10,000 eventually took part.

No infections were reported as authorities set up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater for the pilgrims, who were taken to the religious sites in small batches.

In normal years, the pilgrimage packs large crowds into congested religious sites, but even this year’s downscaled events are seen as a potential mechanism for contagion.

Worshippers were last year given amenity kits including sterilised pebbles for stoning, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, which was made from a bacteria-resistant material.

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2021

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