Muslim pilgrims carrying umbrellas that match color-coded paths circle the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on July 29. (Stringer/AFP via Getty Images)

This Year’s ‘Hajj’ an Entirely Different Picture

A vastly scaled-down version of the annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage is underway in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca, with the relatively few participants having to wear facemasks and practice social distancing during rituals that usually feature people packed shoulder to shoulder. In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Saudi authorities are limiting participation to as few as 1,000 people this year instead of the usual 2.5 million, with none arriving from abroad. Each pilgrim is being provided with personal prayer mats and even anti-bacterial clothing, as well as bottled water and bagged, sterilized stones to use during a traditional ritual condemning Satan. Members of the foreign press are being barred from all sites, having to rely on local journalists and live video feeds provided by the government. This year’s pilgrimage, in fact, will be an epidemiological case study. Says Dr. Hanan Balkhy, a Saudi expert on infectious diseases and senior official at the Geneva-based World Health Organization: “The [Saudi] kingdom and the world will learn together what are the best ways to mitigate transmission [of germs and viruses] during these types of events.”

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