After a two-year absence, international pilgrims will perform the yearly Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia for the first time starting Wednesday, after previously being restricted amid the kingdom’s battle to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
Some one million people are expected to be in attendance in the holy city of Mecca in Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque) for the start of the five-day ritual – a large jump from last year when only 60,000 pilgrims were permitted. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic’s early waves and before vaccines were available, about 10,000 were selected.
Many Muslims around the world have been worried about attending a mass gathering of people while the pandemic continues, and infections are rising in some countries.
The Saudi government eased several COVID-19 restrictions last month, including mask mandates.
Masking will no longer be needed in “closed spaces” except in the Grand Mosque, the holiest site in Islam, the Ministry of Interior said. However, organisers of festivals and events in the city can choose to enforce masking or require proof of vaccination via the local Tawakkalna app, the ministry added.
Maha Elgenaidi, a pilgrim from the United States, said despite the requirement of masks in the Grand Mosque, said only “10 percent” of people were masking.
However, she added: “With the requirements the Saudis had for vaccinations and boosters, I think it’s fine.” As per Saudi government guidelines, only people who are fully vaccinated and aged below 65 years are permitted to perform the Hajj this year.
Over the past two years, the kingdom had some of the tightest restrictions in place to battle COVID-19. There have been approximately 787,000 recorded cases and more than 9,100 deaths in the country of 34 million people.
Many pilgrims feel that the advances made during the pandemic mean that it is now safe to attend.