Hajj 2021: How epidemics impacted Hajj over time

The Hijaz region saw its share of epidemics, particularly cholera, which repeatedly hit the area and threatened Hajj pilgrimage routes. (Getty Images)
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The Hijaz region saw its share of epidemics, particularly cholera, which repeatedly hit the area and threatened Hajj pilgrimage routes. (Getty Images)
An Indian health worker (R) administers a meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine to a Hajj pilgrim in Hyderabad, 2010. (Getty Images/AFP)
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An Indian health worker (R) administers a meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine to a Hajj pilgrim in Hyderabad, 2010. (Getty Images/AFP)
Egyptian Hajj pilgrims receive vaccine injections from Saudi medics before leaving the ship upon their arrival in Jeddah in 2002. Getty Images/AFP)
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Egyptian Hajj pilgrims receive vaccine injections from Saudi medics before leaving the ship upon their arrival in Jeddah in 2002. Getty Images/AFP)
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Updated 20 July 2021

Hajj 2021: How epidemics impacted Hajj over time

Hajj 2021: How epidemics impacted Hajj over time
  • One of the earliest recorded epidemics in Makkah was known as Al-Mashri, which killed many people as well as travelers’ camels in 968, as recorded by the renowned historian Ibn Kathir
  • In 1831, a cholera epidemic that started in India killed 20,000 people in Makkah; subsequent epidemics came to the region of the holy cities in 1841, 1847, 1851, 1856–57, and 1859

JEDDAH: Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy shrines in Makkah, is one of the oldest regular movements of people over long distances and one of the largest reoccurring religious mass gatherings globally.

Prior to the current coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Hajj was affected by various infectious diseases throughout history, which at times suspended the pilgrimage, limited pilgrims’ travel to the holy city, and claimed victims from among the pilgrims as well as from Makkah’s population. 

One of the first historically recorded plagues in Makkah was mentioned by prominent Muslim scholar and historian Ibn Kathir. In his book, “Al-Bidāya wa-n-Nihāya” (“The Beginning and the End”), he said that an epidemic known as Al-Mashri hit the city of Makkah in 968, killing many people as well as travelers’ camels, while pilgrims who were able to complete their pilgrimage died soon thereafter. 

Several historians indicated that convoys of pilgrims witnessed a significant decline during that period, especially from regions hit by the epidemic, due to the deteriorating social and economic circumstances caused by the disease or other diseases in later periods.

Hajj was later transformed by a global revolution in transportation in the 19th century. New means of transportation facilitated movements of larger groups of people worldwide, making the transmission of diseases faster and severely unmanageable. 

That same century was plagued with epidemics, and global life expectancy declined to just 29 years of age as different diseases spread and killed millions throughout the world. The Hijaz region saw its share of these epidemics, particularly cholera, which repeatedly hit the area through India’s pilgrims.

Muslims have long known about the efficacy of quarantine, since the Prophet Muhammad said in the hadith, “If you get wind of the outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; and if it breaks out in a land in which you are, do not leave it.” Pilgrims were often quarantined upon their return in some countries during epidemics, such as in Egypt during the Ottoman Empire. 

Quarantine measures were not yet part of a widespread public health policy back then, however, and the world was not familiar with global disease breakouts. Unlike the plague, cholera was a completely new disease, of which humanity only had very limited knowledge.




An Indian health worker (R) administers a meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine to a Hajj pilgrim in Hyderabad, 2010. (Getty Images/AFP)

Cholera threatened Islamic pilgrimage routes, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal, which facilitated the spread of diseases through ships and railways and forced pilgrims to stay in quarantine for 15 days in the canal or in the Red Sea before heading to Hijaz. 

The disease first appeared in the Arabian Peninsula in 1821. Yet, it did not reach Hijaz until 1831, when it broke out for the first time in Makkah, causing the death of at least three-quarters of the pilgrims arriving at the time. It was called the “Indian epidemic,” and it moved with astonishing swiftness.

According to the book “Histories of Health in South Asia” published by Indiana University Press, cholera killed 20,000 people in Makkah in 1831, and subsequent epidemics came to the region of the holy cities in 1841, 1847, 1851, 1856–57, and 1859. 

In 1840, the Ottoman Empire enforced quarantine, organizing stops at border crossings and in cities near the holy shrines. 

Politics was never too far from the medical policies of Hajj in Hijaz. The massive outbreak of the disease forced British and European colonial powers to pay attention to this crisis and include it in their international politics agenda — not so much to protect the pilgrims as to safeguard their colonies and geopolitical and economic interests. This continued throughout the colonial period, from the late 19th into the early 20th century. 

Colonial powers pushed for a series of large-scale international meetings to deal with the threat of cholera. The first was held at Constantinople in 1866, and it eventually became known simply as the Cholera Conference. 

British policy, however, contradicted the scientific findings of the Cholera Conference. For a long time, the British held that Indian cholera was not a contagious disease, denying the efficacy of cordons and the quarantine of ships following the opening of the Suez Canal, which resulted in a huge loss of life that could have been avoided.

FASTFACT

20,000 people were killed by cholera in Makkah in 1831.

Therefore, although pilgrims were often blamed for being the source of cholera, the worldwide spread of the disease was caused by colonialism, capitalism and new technologies, with pilgrims unwittingly carrying the disease and falling victim to it.

In 1895, the first directorate of health was established in Makkah. Gradually, with the development first of sanitation and then of countermeasures like vaccines and antibiotics, the way the world interfaced with epidemics drastically changed.

In the early 1950s, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia built a quarry for pilgrims outside the city of Jeddah, the location of what would later come to be the King Abdul Aziz Hospital.

Between Saudi Arabia’s internationally recognized success in handling the COVID-19 health crisis and the death of tens of thousands due to cholera in 1865, the Kingdom has earned over 95 years of experience in managing disease. 

“Saudi Arabia has acquired extensive experience in public health, especially as it has been hosting large numbers of pilgrims during Hajj and Umrah seasons over the years,” Dr. Wael Bajahmoom, consultant in infectious diseases and head of the internal medicine departments at King Fahd Hospital in Jeddah, told Arab News.   

The Kingdom’s history has equipped modern Saudi authorities with significant experience in managing crowds and controlling diseases.

A recently issued report by the Hajj and Umrah Research Institute indicated that infectious diseases still represent a real threat to the current Hajj seasons. 

It showed that between 26-60.5 percent of reported cases in previous Hajj seasons were respiratory diseases such as colds and pneumonia, while the rest were digestive diseases such as intestinal flu, diarrhea and meningitis. The death rate due to infectious diseases during Hajj ranged from 1.08-13.67 percent, with an average of 7.1 percent.

Bajahmoom noted that Saudi Arabia favors the policy of “prevention is better than cure,” which was especially highlighted in its exemplary handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the government limited Hajj to immune local pilgrims.  

“The Kingdom is keen on maintaining the safety of worshipers and visitors to the holy sites, and one of the basics of safety is prevention, which is vaccination. The important role vaccines have played in light of many medical crises over the decades is undeniable,” Bajahmoom added.

One such crisis was meningitis, which is highly transmissible in gatherings such as those at the holy sites in Makkah. Vaccines were essential in curbing its spread.

According to the UK-based Meningitis Research Foundation, epidemics of meningitis have been linked to the Hajj pilgrimage, with cases of the disease also occurring worldwide after pilgrims returned to their own countries. Since then, Saudi Arabia has made vaccination against the disease compulsory for entry into the Kingdom during Hajj and Umrah since 2002. No Hajj-related outbreaks of the disease have been reported ever since.

The Public Health Concerns 2019 report by the Saudi Ministry of Health, the year in which the Kingdom received international pilgrims for the last time before the current COVID-19 pandemic, indicated that the meningitis vaccine was mandatory for everyone in the Hajj area; that polio and yellow fever vaccines were required for pilgrims from certain countries; and that the seasonal influenza vaccine was optional but highly recommended. 

Other viruses and diseases that the Ministry of Health warned of included dengue fever, polio, pulmonary tuberculosis, hemorrhagic fevers including Ebola and Lassa fever, measles, Zika virus, blood-borne viruses, and food and water-borne diseases.

Bajahmoom explained that the vaccine lists for pilgrims were determined by specific factors, such as the widespread nature of an epidemic in a given region or its presence in the world as a whole, and environmental factors that would facilitate the spread of certain diseases such as a particular season or weather changes.




An Indian health worker (R) administers a meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine to a Hajj pilgrim in Hyderabad, 2010. (Getty Images/AFP)

“With the outbreak of COVID-19 this year, the primary vaccine for this Hajj season was the one against this disease,” he noted. 

Saudi Arabia has faced various epidemics and virus outbreaks since meningitis. In 2009, with the spread of the swine flu, Saudi Arabia decided to prevent the elderly, children and pilgrims with chronic diseases from performing Hajj that year.

Moreover, with the escalation of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus in 2013, Saudi Arabia urged elderly and chronically ill Muslims to refrain from performing Hajj, as the disease had already killed dozens of people in the Kingdom.

Furthermore, during the Ebola outbreak in Africa between 2014 and 2016, in which 11,300 people died, Saudi Arabia made specific contingency plans that included deploying medical staff at airports and setting up isolation units as nearly 3 million Muslims from across the world flocked to perform Hajj. It also suspended pilgrimage visas for Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia — the three worst-affected countries.

With the spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, which claimed thousands of lives worldwide, dozens of workers began sterilizing the floors of the Grand Mosque in Makkah. Saudi Arabia also decided to suspend the entry of pilgrims to the country and enforced health measures for performing Umrah and Hajj — a decision that was welcomed by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Saudi Arabia played a major role in combating epidemics both locally and internationally,” said Bajahmoom. “Its cooperation with the rest of the world did not stop with the exchange of research but also included medical and financial support to neighboring countries, as well as those farther away.” 

One of the most important contributors to international scientific research is the Ministry of Health’s Global Center for Mass Gatherings Medicine, which works hand-in-hand with the WHO in the health management of mass gatherings and is considered one of the world’s few centers specialized in this area. 

“Having almost two years of experience of controlling COVID-19 in addition to the Kingdom’s accumulated experience gives us extraordinary capabilities to combat any future health issues,” Bajahmoom said. 

As Saudi Arabia approaches herd immunity within months, Bajahmoom hopes that the Kingdom will soon welcome international pilgrims again.

“This pandemic is only one of many crises that we have faced, and it will pass in time. We will look to it as a memory that will equip us with strength in the future.”


Saudi navy unveils latest warship Jazan in Spain

Saudi and Spanish officials attend the unveiling of the latest Avante 2200 corvette for the Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) at the Navantia shipyard in Spain on July 24, 2021. (SPA)
Saudi and Spanish officials attend the unveiling of the latest Avante 2200 corvette for the Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) at the Navantia shipyard in Spain on July 24, 2021. (SPA)
Updated 26 July 2021

Saudi navy unveils latest warship Jazan in Spain

Saudi and Spanish officials attend the unveiling of the latest Avante 2200 corvette for the Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) at the Navantia shipyard in Spain on July 24, 2021. (SPA)
  • The Avante 2200 corvette is the fourth of its type being built in a joint venture between Saudi Arabian Military Industries and Spain's Navantia

MADRID: The Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) recently celebrated the launch of the Avante 2200 corvette, which is the fourth warship of its type within the Sarwat project.

The ship, named Jazan, was unveiled by the Spanish shipbuilder as part of its ceremonial launching held at the shipyard of the Navantia Naval Industries Co., Spain.

The corvettes are being built in a joint venture between Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), and Navantia S.A., named SAMI Navantia Naval Industries.

They will be delivered in 2024, a year later than initially planned, and will feature special combat and fire control systems and integrated communications among other technologies.

The launch event was attended by the Saudi ambassador to Spain, Azzam bin Abdulkarim Al-Qain; the vice president of SAMI for corporate communication, support services and information technology, Wael bin Mohammed Al-Sarhan; as well as other senior officials from RSNF, Spanish Navy and SAMI Navantia Naval Industries.

Saudi ambassador to Spain, Azzam bin Abdulkarim Al-Qain, meets with officials of the SAMI Navantia Naval Industries in Spain on July 24, 2021. (SPA)

The commander of the RSNF, Lt. Gen. Adm. Fahd bin Abdullah Al-Ghufaili, said: “The Sarawat project will contribute to raising the level of readiness of the RSNF, enhancing maritime security in the region and protecting the vital strategic interests of the Kingdom. In addition, the project ships are an important addition to the capabilities of the RSNF in protecting the Kingdom’s maritime interests and localizing advanced military industries technically.”

The Sarawat project warships feature the latest combat systems to deal with all air threats, surface and subsurface, as well as being equipped for electronic wars. They have more capabilities than many of the world’s navies, and are a further addition to the capabilities of the RSNF in protecting the nation’s maritime security.

The project also includes training services for crews, training simulators, logistics, and long-term after-sales technical and logistical support.


Umrah companies gear up to receive foreign pilgrims

Following the temporary closure of Umrah due to the emergence of the pandemic, worshippers were allowed to perform the Umrah rituals in early October. (AFP/File)
Following the temporary closure of Umrah due to the emergence of the pandemic, worshippers were allowed to perform the Umrah rituals in early October. (AFP/File)
Updated 26 July 2021

Umrah companies gear up to receive foreign pilgrims

Following the temporary closure of Umrah due to the emergence of the pandemic, worshippers were allowed to perform the Umrah rituals in early October. (AFP/File)
  • Industry workers could be trained to operate under pandemic conditions, says official

MAKKAH: Hundreds of companies are gearing up to receive fully immunized foreign pilgrims wishing to perform Umrah from Aug. 9.

Via an online platform, pilgrims will be given access to 500 businesses providing access to flights, transport, hotels and Umrah companies.
Hani Al-Omairi, a member of the National Committee for Hajj and Umrah and the Hotels Committee in Makkah, told Alarabiya that nearly 30 websites and platforms will be available for international reservations.
“Health courses and crowd management courses were given to all employees as several companies have commenced operations. Procedures for the rest of the companies and institutions are being finalized by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah and other relevant authorities,” said Al-Omairi.
Commenting on the news, Mohsin Tutla, chairman of the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation, told Arab News the return of pilgrims could be ensured through training the industry to provide services under pandemic conditions. He added that the introduction of vigilance technology throughout the pilgrimage and further measures would help smoothen the process.
Tutla told Arab News that the demand from pilgrims to conduct rituals during the pandemic is not as high as people may think.

SPEEDREAD

• Via an online platform, pilgrims will be given access to 500 businesses providing access to flights, transport, hotels and Umrah companies. 

• Hani Al-Omairi, a member of the National Committee for Hajj and Umrah and the Hotels Committee in Makkah, says nearly 30 websites and platforms will be available for international reservations.

“Even though we can assume that people have been queuing to perform Hajj and Umrah, the reality is that people’s financial capability has been depleted.
“Where Hajj and Umrah were available and easy for the mass population and the middle income population, it is now only possible for the rich and thrifty savers.”
Tutla added: “The road to recovery and rejuvenation is not dependent on only demand, it is dependent on the development of global safety mechanisms such as the Hajj and Umrah Safe Corridor, which is currently being developed by the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation, and is being installed in 25 countries worldwide.

Demand from pilgrims to conduct rituals during the pandemic is not as high as people may think. 

Mohsin Tutla, Chairman of the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation

“Globally you will realize that demand would have dropped by approximately 40 percent for international Umrah and 15 percent for international Hajj pilgrimages.” Following the temporary closure of Umrah due to the emergence of the pandemic, worshippers were allowed to perform the Umrah rituals in early October. As many as 250,000 domestic pilgrims were able to register, book appointments and granted permits in the first phase.
Some 10,000 foreign pilgrims were gradually allowed back into the Kingdom in the third phase on Nov. 1 after a seven-month hiatus of strict regulations.


Who’s Who: Dr. Mohammed Sulaiman Al-Jasser, Islamic Development Bank president

Who’s Who: Dr. Mohammed Sulaiman Al-Jasser, Islamic Development Bank president
Updated 26 July 2021

Who’s Who: Dr. Mohammed Sulaiman Al-Jasser, Islamic Development Bank president

Who’s Who: Dr. Mohammed Sulaiman Al-Jasser, Islamic Development Bank president

Dr. Mohammed Sulaiman Al-Jasser has been appointed as the new head of the Islamic Development Bank for the next five years.

He has been an adviser at the General Secretariat of the Saudi Council of Ministers and the chairman of the General Authority for Competition since 2016.

Al-Jasser received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California in 1986. He obtained his master’s degree in economics from the same university in 1981, and a bachelor’s degree in economics from San Diego State University in 1979.

He served as the Kingdom’s economy and planning minister from 2011 to 2015, and as governor of the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) between 2009 and 2011. He was also the vice governor and vice chairman of the SAMA’s board from November 1995 to February 2009.

He has participated in major international events, including G20 meetings at the deputy, ministerial, governor and full summit levels. Al-Jasser also participated in regular meetings of the Bank for International Settlements from 1997 to 2011, and took part in local and international symposia, while also giving frequent lectures on economic and monetary policies.

His previous memberships of ministerial committees, boards and councils include the Council for Economic Affairs and Development, the Supreme Council for Civil Defense, and the Ministerial Committee for Mining Affairs among others.

Al-Jasser has received many awards such as the King Abdul Aziz Medal of the First Order in 2001, the Euromoney (Emerging Markets) Award for Central Bank Governor, MENA Region for the Year in 2009, the Arab Bankers Association of North America Achievement Award in 2010, and “The Banker” Award and “Central Bank Governor of the Year for the Middle East” in 2011.


Makkah’s hospitality sector eyeing recovery

The hotel sector in Makkah is the strongest in the Middle East, says expert. (SPA)
The hotel sector in Makkah is the strongest in the Middle East, says expert. (SPA)
Updated 25 July 2021

Makkah’s hospitality sector eyeing recovery

The hotel sector in Makkah is the strongest in the Middle East, says expert. (SPA)
  • Several services can also be built upon within the hospitality industry to create diverse “backup sectors” that the industry can fall back in exceptional circumstances

MAKKAH: The hospitality sector in Makkah is beginning to look forward to a strong recovery from the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and experts predict hotels could begin to see results within two years.
The city, the third-most densely populated in the Kingdom, is particularly well served in terms of hotels — almost two-thirds of all those in Saudi Arabia can be found there. Before the pandemic it was a thriving sector, its growth fueled by the ever-increasing numbers of visitors from around the world who flock to Makkah for the annual Hajj pilgrimage or to complete their Umrah rituals.
COVID-19 changed everything. However, experts predict that after the dramatic decline in business caused by the pandemic, “hotel recuperation” plans could begin to yield results by 2023 as the world slowly starts to emerge from lockdown.
Fadhel Manqal, manager of a hotel in the city and a member of the Makkah Chamber of Commerce and industry hotels committee, told Arab News that the sector has faced immense challenges for almost two years.
“The sector has experienced an economic downturn,” he said. “This has crippled its economic power, which is an important contributor to the local economy. It has borne the burden of the effects of the pandemic, which has had a negative effect on all areas of the global economy, including significant implications for the hotel sector.

FASTFACT

The city, the third-most densely populated in the Kingdom, is particularly well served in terms of hotels — almost two-thirds of all those in Saudi Arabia can be found there.

“Makkah’s hotels were not spared; they have suffered substantial losses, leading some to close down and others to suspend their activities or recover partially. Many have suffered losses worth billions.”
Manqal said that the hotel sector in Makkah is the strongest in the Middle East, with more than 1,300 hotels that are expected to receive 30 million pilgrims by 2030, as visitor numbers increase as a result of the National Transformation Program and the wider Saudi Vision 2030. But it is still suffering real hardship, he added, despite the early signs of recovery.
The hospitality industry has been irreversibly changed by the health crisis, he said, adding that despite the efforts of some governments to minimize the effects and reduce losses, it has been an economic catastrophe for the sector and the fates of many businesses hang in the balance.
“Not everyone is capable of recovery, adapting or even reorganizing,” said Manqal. “The large five-star hotel chains near the Grand Mosque in Makkah will certainly recover quickly, especially the ones in the central area or the commercial districts near the holy sites in Al-Aziziyah.
“There is no doubt that the unfolding effects on the industry pose a challenge even for more-experienced hotel owners.” For this reason it is vital that businesses plan for the future and confront obstacles, he added.
Saudi authorities began to look for ways to help people and plan for recovery early in the pandemic, said Manqal. For example, they provided assistance through the SANED unemployment insurance program for the families of Saudi hotel workers.
With continued support from the authorities, and the gradual return of Umrah pilgrims from within the Kingdom and, in initially limited numbers, other countries as vaccination rates increase around the world, Manqal said that he expects the sector to begin to recover by 2023.
This gives hospitality providers time to consider their options and develop a better understanding of their perfect hotel guest, he added, but some service providers will face greater challenges than others, particularly those that were heavily dependent on the annual Hajj and Umrah seasons.
Economic analyst Fadl Abu Al-Ainain told Arab News that he expects the sector will continue to experience hardship until the end of this year and that greater public and private sector support, in the form of exceptional incentive programs, as well as the Kingdom’s rapidly expanding vaccination program, will alleviate the continuing effects of the pandemic on Makkah’s hospitality industry.
“Recovery is linked to the return of pilgrims at levels similar to those in the past, and this cannot be achieved due to the coronavirus,” he said. “Consequently, change in the sector is closely linked to a full recovery from the pandemic. Thus, there should be greater focus on reducing the effects of the pandemic on the sector through the provision of government support, as well as measures to reduce the financial burdens on the sector.
“There should be a mechanism for coping with exceptional circumstances, which would also require an enhancement of crisis management that would cover financial and operational damage,” Al-Ainain added.
“The sector has not achieved efficiency in combating crises, and its ability to withstand shocks is nonexistent, but the pandemic situation might open the door for the development of strategies to urgently manage crises in the future.
“I think that reconsidering the value of lease agreements and fixed costs, in partnership with the government, are tools that could be used to address this crisis, and that more sharing of risk among all parties to a contract might reduce the magnitude of losses and the burden of them falling mostly on just one side.”
Several services can also be built upon within the hospitality industry to create diverse “backup sectors” that the industry can fall back in exceptional circumstances, Al-Ainain said, lamenting the fact that “no one searched for them in the past due to the steady and easy income during the high season.”


Authorities in Saudi Arabia sterilize holy sites after Hajj pilgrims depart

The work was carried out under the supervision of the Services Agency represented by the General Administration of Environmental Sanitation. (SPA)
The work was carried out under the supervision of the Services Agency represented by the General Administration of Environmental Sanitation. (SPA)
Updated 25 July 2021

Authorities in Saudi Arabia sterilize holy sites after Hajj pilgrims depart

The work was carried out under the supervision of the Services Agency represented by the General Administration of Environmental Sanitation. (SPA)
  • Spraying and sterilization work was carried out in Arafat and Muzdalifah

JEDDAH: The Municipality of Makkah carried out several field tours to sterilize the holy sites area following the completion of the Hajj pilgrimage, as part an integrated municipal services system.
The Municipality said that sanitation work covered the holy sites to combat public health threats, filling and suctioning water from swamps or water pools, while using environmentally friendly means to preserve public health.
The work was carried out under the supervision and follow-up of the Services Agency represented by the General Administration of Environmental Sanitation.
The agency indicated that spraying and sterilization work was carried out for 103 open water fountains, 48 ​​watershed sites, 217 toilet facilities, and 55 rainwater drainage ducts, in addition to cleaning and sterilizing three government offices in Arafat.
62 open water fountains, 13 watershed sites, 103 toilet facilities, 24 rainwater drainage ducts and a government office in Muzdalifah were also sprayed and sterilized.