On January 30, 2020, the WHO declared the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. On March 11, 2020, WHO characterized it as a global pandemic. Our world has been struck by several pandemics since the turn of the century, but the COVID-19 pandemic has had unprecedented national and international ramifications. It has had far-reaching consequences in the social, economic, political, and even religious spheres all over the world.
COVID-19 National Response Before Hajj Season
The vast majority of the 2.5 million pilgrims who performed Hajj in 2019 were not Saudi citizens. Nearly 75% of pilgrims from outside the Kingdom performed Hajj this year. A total of 2.5 million pilgrims entered the Kingdom, 634,379. Saudi nationals accounted for 211,033. The Saudi population accounted for about 8.5% of the pilgrim population. Over 30,000 Saudi Ministry of Health employees will provide healthcare services during Hajj this year.
With the unpredictable COVID-19 outbreaks, planning a similar mass gathering in 2020 would not have been without its consequences on both a national and international scale. By August 15, 2020, almost 26.12 million COVID-19 cases were reported worldwide and a total of 768,448 deaths had been reported.9 Despite Saudi Arabia applying strict measures to stop the spread of this disease, the number of confirmed cases was on the rise. Approximately 2.95 million case reports were reported in Saudi Arabia, with a total of 3,338 deaths associated with COVID-19.18 The Saudi government acted early by suspending international flights and limiting gatherings.19 The low case fatality rate was impacted by extensive testing and the high proportion of youths in the population.
Government Measures Taken For Hajj Pilgrims Globally
The following measures have been planned and implemented for Hajj:
Safe “bubbles” and tracks for Hajj pilgrims
As part of the pilgrimage, pilgrims traveled in groups of 20 and were assigned tracks based on their numbers and colors. The tracks specified, among other things, which waiting for posts, housing, and bus seats each bubble would use during the long Hajj journey. Each group had an organizer, a healthcare professional, a driver, and a hospitality staff member.
Health officers –
During the Hajj rituals, fifty trained medical officers were on hand to ensure the pilgrims received the best possible care (measure temperatures frequently, check symptoms, respond to all health complaints) and ensure that preventive measures were followed correctly. Medical officers assessed medical concerns and expedited transfers to medical posts that had dedicated equipment and personnel for further treatment. Patients could be transported to nearby hospitals if need be with critical care ambulances on standby. There was an adequate communication system and event response control system in place.
Hajj community –
Personnel providing Hajj services also received special training and eligibility criteria. Staff members were classified as either hot, warm, or cold depending on their proximity to pilgrims. Zone passes were provided and measures (e.g., PCR testing, quarantine, and training) were more severe for those in hot zones.
The Ultimate Preventive Measures
A number of preventive measures were implemented, including prepackaged meals (no buffets), no sharing of utensils or personal instruments, no physical touching of the Holy Kaaba or other high-touch surfaces, the distribution of sterile pebbles for each pilgrim to throw, and the provision of prayer mats for individual use.
For the Muslim community around the world, Hajj in 2020 has provided a sense of security. Based on risk assessments of multiple scenarios, the rituals were decided to go forward in accordance with WHO guidelines for mass gatherings. The Saudi Arabian mitigation plan outlined in this article aimed to ensure the safety of pilgrims and personnel by limiting the spread of COVID-19 both within and outside the country. To ensure that Umrah will once again be a vital Islamic ritual in the near future, this model will be replicated and modified. In conclusion, Hajj’s success in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a lesson for all global entities. The book provides a framework for successfully planning, executing, and managing large-scale gatherings using technology, tracks, assigning health officers, and other proven prevention methods.