Hajj has begun for some two million Muslims. The pilgrimage to Mecca, enjoined on all adults who are physically and financially capable of making the journey, is the largest annual religious celebration on Earth. Many Muslims plan and save their entire lives to walk in the physical and spiritual footsteps of the prophets Muhammad and Abraham. With so much at stake, very little will deter Muslims centered on fulfilling the trek of a lifetime.
This year, however, the festive mood has been tempered over concerns that a new and dangerous coronavirus, known as MERS and linked to Saudi Arabia, might be spread to other nations through pilgrims coming into close contact as a result of their haj obligations.
As a result, Saudi officials have placed quotas on some pilgrims arriving from overseas, dramatically reducing their numbers by over 500,000 people. More police are present and health facilities are on high alert. The Saudi government began cautioning certain pilgrims as far back as July, 2013, since the MERS virus, while not as contagious as SARS, apparently has a much greater mortality rate among individuals who have other health issues and compromised immune systems.
The hajj comprises a series of rituals conducted from the 8-12th day of the month Dhul al Hijjah, the final month in the Islamic calendar. The entire trip frequently takes at least two weeks for the modern pilgrim as most try to visit Medina and pay homage at the tomb of the prophet Muhammad before traveling to Mecca for the actual beginning of the festival. Since it's such an important religious requirement, and for many poorer Muslims will be the singular event of their lifetimes, many stay a month or more in Saudi Arabia, visiting shrines and drinking in the history and culture.
Once the rituals begin, one is constantly in the company of others, since it is forbidden to travel alone. Pilgrims are also forbidden to bathe, from the time they start the trek to Mina, the first step in the ritual journey, until they return to perform the "stoning of Satan," generally, at least a day and a half to as much as three days. They will be in all kinds of weather conditions, walking through dust and automobile exhaust. Sleep is often difficult and the crowds can be dangerous and suffocating, simply due to the sheer numbers of people in small spaces.
Every year people die on hajj and in years past hundreds of people have been trampled and buildings have collapsed. Obviously, hygiene is difficult, although the Saudi authorities have done what they can to try to accommodate so many people.
There's little evidence that fears of MERS has kept anyone away, at least from initial reports. Some pilgrims are wearing face masks and trying to wash their hands as much as possible until such time as they cannot. Health ministry officials are confident that the hajj will pass without a MERS outbreak, despite admissions that two individuals died in the Kingdom in the days immediately prior to hajj. Many Muslims have gone on umrah, or minor pilgrimages, all year round and none of them have contracted MERS.
Reports indicate that many, if not most pilgrims from the poorest Muslim nations, and these constitute the greater number of those who have traveled from abroad, have not even heard of the MERS virus, and are trusting their health, as countless Muslims have before them, to God.