Residents of Saudi Arabia between the ages 18 and 65 who have been fully vaccinated or immunized against the virus and do not suffer from chronic diseases, were allowed to apply for the hajj pilgrimage through an online portal. More than half a million tried.
Images and videos from the pilgrimage showed just a handful of white- or black-clad individuals surrounding the Kaaba, a black cube-shaped building at the heart of the Grand Mosque around which pilgrims circumambulate.
In past years, the crowds poured out of every nook and cranny, a human sea of worshipers. This year, the comparatively low number of socially distanced pilgrims made their rounds according to colored lines laid on the cooled marble floor.
Masked Muslims stood on Mount Arafat on Monday, where pilgrims gather to pray and atone for their sins. Disinfectant-spraying and water-delivering robots were deployed around the cube-shaped Kaaba’s busiest walkways. Collaborating with the government’s artificial intelligence authority, Saudi Arabia is also testing a touch-screen smart bracelet coded with information on the hajj, pilgrim’s oxygen levels, vaccine data and an emergency call feature, the Associated Press reported.
Before the pandemic, more than 2 million pilgrims would flock to the hill, packed tightly together in the burning Saudi heat. The image of the spread-out pilgrims is shocking for those accustomed to the closely packed crowds.
Every year, fears of stampedes would abound as the government tries to organize the pilgrimage to prevent catastrophes like that of 2015, when a stampede left more than 700 dead, according to official numbers.
Heat stress poses an additional concern. For the duration of this year’s hajj, temperature predictions in the city of Mecca have been hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoons. For Tuesday, midday weather predictions reach as high as 106 degrees.
Given the 20 to 30 hours spent outdoors over the five-day period of hajj — as well as humid airs blown inland from the Red Sea — experts have pointed out growing risks of heat-related illness, especially among elderly participants. A group of researchers have predicted that if climate change continues at its current trajectory, “aggressive adaptation measures” will be required.
“It would be strongly in the interest of the nations of Southwest Asia, and of other regions, to support aggressive efforts to rein in climate change to protect the Hajj … and the future of human habitability in their countries,” researchers Bob Henson and Jeff Masters wrote on July 15.
The Saudi Health Ministry said at a Monday news conference that no coronavirus cases have been detected among Hajj participants so far.
In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has amped up its restrictions on travel outside the kingdom. On Monday, the Interior Ministry announced that Saudi citizens will need to have had two coronavirus vaccine doses before they can travel abroad, starting Aug. 9. The country has campaigned to encourage citizens and residents to take the vaccines, opening nearly 600 vaccination sites across the kingdom.
Earlier in the month, it barred travel to and entry from several countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Sammy Westfall and Claire Parker contributed to this report.