Muslim pilgrims preparing for the annual hajj rites have started arriving in Mecca as Saudi authorities balance the kingdom’s oversight of one of Islam’s key pillars and the safety of visitors in the face of a global pandemic.
The hajj, which will begin on Wednesday, normally draws around 2.5 million people for five intense days of worship. However, numbers between 1000 and 10,000 pilgrims will be allowed.
Two-thirds of those pilgrims will be from among foreign residents in Saudi Arabia and one-third will be Saudi citizens.
Fatin Daud, a 25-year-old Malaysian studying in Saudi Arabia and who was among the few selected said after her selection, Saudi Health Ministry officials came to her home and tested her for the COVID-19 virus.
She was then given an electronic bracelet that monitors her movements, and told to quarantine for several days at home.
She narrated that she was then moved to a hotel in Mecca, where she remains in self-isolation, still wearing the electronic wristband.
“A large box of food is delivered to her hotel room three times a day as she prepares to begin the hajj,” she said.
“It was unbelievable. It felt surreal because I was not expecting to get it,” she said of her excitement when she found out she was selected.
Fatin said she’s praying for the end of COVID-19 and for unity among Muslims around the world.
“I am confident that safety measures are being taken and that the only thing that we need to do as pilgrims is follow instructions, and try our best to support each other,” she said.
While self-isolating has been emotionally challenging, Fatin said she was part of a group of about 10 Malaysian and Singaporean pilgrims connecting online and sharing tips and religious exercises to keep busy.
The Saudi government is covering the expenses of all pilgrims this year, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation, transportation and health care.
Normally, the hajj can cost thousands of dollars for pilgrims who save for a lifetime for the journey. It also generates billions of dollars in revenue each year for Saudi Arabia.