As the annual Hajj or pilgrimage to the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina draw near, the question once again is whether the Saudi government can adequately deal with more than 3 + million pilgrims that are expected to make the pilgrimage and festival of Eid el-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice) this year. Especially in light of diseases such as the global H1N1 influenza pandemic which is now a world-wide concern to UN and other international health officials.
The problem of how to cope with the strain that this mass of humanity puts on the Saudi health and sanitation authorities is bad enough in a normal season; but this year may be especially trying to cope with the H1N1 virus, otherwise known as swine flu, that returning pilgrims who may be infected could take back with them to their home countries.
After all, this situation is a bit more worrisome than when the virus originally broke out in Mexico last winter when tourists returning from holidays there infected others after arriving home.
In this case, the environmental implications of this annual pilgrimage is a challenging one indeed, especially for health officials and encironmentalists; and this year will be even more so. The Saudi Authorities have been preparing for the event by beefing up the health care facilities that will be in place once the pilgrims arrive.
Arriving pilgrims will be given face masks, sanitizing hand gel, and will be checked for fevers and other symptoms of the disease.
The Saudi Health Ministry, with help from the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, is setting up an emergency operations command center at the Hajj site in Mecca to be able to monitor various diseases, including H1N1. “It’s an advance warning system,” said the CDC’s Dr. Shahul Ebrahim, who will be working along with Dr. Ziad Memish, the Saudi Deputy Health Minister , to monitor the on-site situation during the week-long pilgrimage.
The Saudi Health Ministry has seven hospitals and 75 field health care centers, staffed with around 10,000 health service employees, in the areas where the pilgrimage rituals will conducted. But due to the concerns over N1H1 and other contagious diseases these facilities are to be increased.
It’s not only concern about diseases that creates an annual problem for this event which, along with the world Muslim population in general, seems to be growing in numbers of participants each year. Just getting there can be an even more challenging experience than “stoning the devil” or drinking from the Holy Waters of Zam-Zam, which by Islamic tradition are the waters that Hagar and Ishmail were given by God (Allah) to drink from.
In a previous Green Prophet article, it was noted that a new fast train between Riyadh and Meccah is being planned which should ease the congestion of the thousands of busses and other vehicles which crowd the already congested roads leading to the Hajj sites, as well as the sites themselves.
Bids for the construction of the railway are being solicited now, and five major transportation logistics companies, including France’s Alstom, Germany’s Siemens, and South Korea’s Samsung C & T are expected to bid on the project that will be begin to be constructed in 2012. When completed, the rail line will link up the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, which will be great help to ease the traffic congestion, as well as the pollution caused by so many vehicles.
But this is at least 6 years down the line, and in the meantime, only road vehicles can ferry the millions of pilgrims in and out of the Hajj holy sites.
With so many people coming to this location, the sanitation aspects, including mountains of trash, human wastes and garbage that will have to be dealt with and removed, these annual events are a health care worker’s and environmentalist’s nightmare. But this does not discourage the faithful from performing a rite that is part of the Five Pillars of Islam and is required to be done at least once during a person’s lifetime. We can only hope that in light of this year’s concerns, the Hajj ritual will be carried out with the least problems as possible, especially in light of the H1N1 pandemic.
A safe holiday to all.