In 2019 there were around 2.5 million pilgrims who performed Hajj. However, last year 1,000 pilgrims based in Saudi Arabia were permitted to pilgrimage. But are there COVID-19 restrictions this year?
Maybe you remember the pictures of the Hajj in 2020. It featured in news outlets around the world, a symbol of the changes the pandemic brought. This year, there are also some changes.
Hajj 2021 begins the evening of Saturday 17th to the evening of Thursday, July 22nd. The Hijri date is 7th Dhul Hijjah, 1442h, to 12th Dhul Hijjah, 1442h. Usually, many foreign residents attend, but like last year, there are restrictions.
This time, Hajj will be on a larger scale, with some impressive restrictions to manage COVID-19 risk. There will be a maximum of 60,000 pilgrims.
Read on to learn all you need to know about the COVID-19 restrictions for the 2021 Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah.
Why Are There Restrictions?
Last year the Hajj and Umrah ministry also made changes. It was also due to the health, safety, and security concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this year, there are adaptions to cater for more pilgrims.
However, COVID-19 concerns remain in Saudi Arabia. There have been over 500,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and over 7,000 fatalities have been documented since the pandemic began. Currently, there are travel requirements for non-citizens.
Some foreign residents were hopeful because of the general quarantine measures and PCR tests. However, the Hajj is not open this year for them.
Usually, the Hajj is one of the most significant religious gatherings in the world. As a result, the Kingdom has changed the pilgrimage for many reasons previously. These reasons include politics, armed conflict, and disease.
For example, historically, there were outbreaks of malaria and cholera. In recent years the Kingdom also made changes due to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Meningococcal disease. It is no different for the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Kingdom must protect all workers, pilgrims, and citizens. The new variants and ongoing pandemic meant they recently announced restrictions.
The decision aims to stay in compliance with the purposes of Islamic Sharia to preserve the soul. It also aims to provide sufficient protection for pilgrims.
The pilgrimage has a capacity of 60,000 pilgrims who are residents and citizens of the Kingdom. They cannot attend if they have attended Hajj in the past five years. No foreign pilgrims can attend Hajj in 2021.
The Ministry of Health has limited the pilgrimage to people between 18-65 years this year. Applicants also have to be free from any chronic diseases. Children are not allowed, and pregnant women are recommended to postpone.
Women could register without a mahram (male guardian) for the first time this year. Applicants had to go through a screening process to be accepted. Within the first 24 hours, there were over 450,000 applicants, with 60% males and 40% women.
Pilgrims need to take precautions before the five-day pilgrimage. Precautions include hand hygiene and physical distancing.
COVID-19 Vaccine Requirements
All pilgrims have to be vaccinated. There is a vaccine drive in Saudi Arabia. Currently, over 19 million doses have been administered.
Pilgrims had three vaccine options to apply:
- Received two doses of the vaccine
- Received the first dose at least 14 days prior
- Vaccinated and recovered from infection
If pilgrims have only received the first dose, they have to receive their second before Hajj. When they receive their Hajj permit, they can attend a vaccination centre within 48 hours without an appointment.
All pilgrims need to evidence their immunization. They will have to show their vaccine certification. There is a COVID-19 app to manage details and confirm health status.
Workers will also have the vaccine or have routine PCR tests. Currently, Saudi Arabia has approved Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccines. All approved COVID-19 vaccines are Halal.
Everyone who will perform Hajj this year has a permit. It is the easiest way to control the capacity and screen pilgrims in advance. All accepted pilgrims had to pass the screening and received confirmation electronically.
The Hajj smart card helps control illegal pilgrimages. It contains all personal, medical, and residential information. Authorities also increased the fine and upped controls to stop unlawful pilgrimages this year.
If someone is caught without a permit, they will be fined 10,000 Saudi Riyals (around 3,561 AUD). There have been 52 arrests so far this year.
There are three Hajj packages available this year. They aim to include measures that will help manage COVID-19 risk, such as reducing crowding. These packages are:
- Hospitality Package (camps)
- Distinguished Hospitality Package (camps)
- Distinguished Hospitality Package (towers)
The first two packages include camp accommodation in tents. Camps are large, and authorities hope the airflow helps reduce any risks. Food and transport are also included.
The third package includes hotel accommodation, meals, transport, and other amenities. This is the most expensive package and requires more savings.
Applicants had to commit to paying the total package price. The cancellation resulted in no refund after the 11th Hijri month. However, if a pilgrim tests positive for COVID-19 beforehand, they get a refund.
Food restrictions are also in place to manage COVID-19 risk. Catering companies will provide pilgrims with personalized packaged meals to prevent overcrowding. Pilgrims will have their three meals a day in their rooms.
Food halls will not operate this year. Buffets are also banned this year to maintain social distancing.
Pilgrims will also use their Hajj smart cards to access accommodation. They will use it for transport, ATMs, and cashless payment terminals.
The card can link to mobile devices via a QR code to make it easy for pilgrims. The Kingdom used it previously, and it ties in well with COVID-19 restrictions. It will make it easier to avoid cross-contamination and track pilgrim contacts.
The Tawakkalna COVID-19 application also manages the spread of coronavirus. It notifies the Ministry of Health if there is a suspected case and shows a user’s health condition. It is the Ministry’s application to manage COVID-19 in Saudi Arabia.
The app also shows other details, such as public violations. If a person has tested positive, it will also notify any services and prevent their entry. Its goal is early detection of infection and tracing contacts.
There will be a shuttle bus system with a health leader guide for every 20 people. The guide will escort their group throughout the program. They will ensure everyone follows COVID-19 restrictions and provide guidance.
Their goal is to make a positive impact on others. They will help ensure everyone understands restrictions. The pilgrims can perform their pilgrimage protecting themselves and others.
There will also be many electric screens and guides around to help pilgrims navigate. Pathways, signs, and markings are also present to assist. The goal is to prevent pilgrims wandering or getting lost, and so they stick to assigned pathways.
There will be additional transport options for those travelling from outside of Makkah. All bags will be sterilized once they arrive, and centres will check health statuses. There are several centres around Makkah to receive them.
There will also be social distancing on transport, with gaps between passengers. And there will be face masks. Supplies of face masks have been ordered in preparation.
Holy Site Restrictions
The Hajj smart card will help identify crowded spots at holy sites in Makkah and Madinah. There will be guides around implementing COVID-19 restrictions, such as on the Jamarat Bridge.
There will be more security, too, to enforce permits and restrict illegal pilgrimages. There will be checkpoints at holy sites, roads, and corridors leading to the Grand Mosque.
Social distancing will be enforced at holy sites. For example, there have been 25 tracks installed for encircling Holy Kaaba. Pilgrims will also go in groups to visit sites and will have a schedule.
The Saudi Red Crescent Authority (SRCA) is helping prepare for Hajj. It is distributing an emergency fleet, which includes ambulances and 549 medical personnel. They will be at the medical centres in and around Makkah.
There are also around 300 volunteers who will provide emergency support. They will also offer COVID-19 education at holy sites. The medical personnel will manage health risks, including COVID-19 outbreaks.
There have been around 5000 workers recruited to clean and sterilize. They are cleaning the Grand Mosque and other facilities up to 10 times a day. There have reportedly used 60,000 litres of disinfectant.
They are using the latest cleaning technology to prepare and maintain the sites. They also use modern machines to clean as efficiently as possible.
Technology continues to evolve at the Hajj in response to outbreaks such as COVID-19. Even robots are helping out at this year’s Hajj. The goal is to reduce human contact with technology features.
Robots are also in use to help human cleaners maintain COVID-19 sanitization. For example, the Grand Mosque is 365,000 square meters. So this technology adds an extra level of safety for everyone.
Robots will also help distribute bottled water and provide other assistance. There are already robots managing the water of the sacred spring of Zamzam in the Great Mosque.
There are other restrictions, such as face masks and social distancing during prayers. There are also thermal cameras as in 2020.
Touching or kissing the Black Stone of the Kaaba remains banned, as was the case last year. There are plans to provide gifts such as umbrellas and sterilizers for safety. Guides and signs will promote handwashing and other etiquettes.
There will be other limitations to manage COVID-19 risk. This includes limiting movement between accommodations. This means you cannot visit family or friends who are staying in different places.
The fact that food is also included limits the amount of movement and gathering of crowds.
Impact on Prospective Pilgrims
Last year was unprecedented and led to many Hajj package cancellations. This year there were some changes.
However, this year, there were no permit arrangements first. The priority is to protect the pilgrimage. While it is mandatory for those who are financially and physically able in their lifetime, COVID-19 remains a threat.
Many pilgrims hoped to complete their pilgrimage this year. The announcement is understandable but disappointing for many.
In the meantime, it is essential to manage your mental health during COVID-19. Many significant events have been cancelled, and plans have been changed.
It is essential to acknowledge your feelings. Whatever you feel is valid. Find coping strategies that help you manage, such as breaks from social media and the news.
There are virtual tours available for those who want to experience Hajj remotely. It is not a replacement for the pilgrimage. But it can bring some excitement to those who are waiting to complete their pilgrimage.
For Umrah, Hajj, and all travel, it is vital to follow announcements. Australia’s and Saudi Arabia’s restrictions are continuing to change. Currently, travel restrictions remain.
The restrictions for Hajj make sense and will help protect everyone involved. There was talk about it not going ahead too.
As with most countries, Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry has suffered. Slowly restrictions are lifting, and there is hope that next year’s Hajj will be open for all.
Usually, there are over 21,000 buses to transport pilgrims, 14,000 flights, and 18,000 civil defence staff. It is a significant undertaking, and there have not been other events to this scale since COVID-19. As the world continues to open up slowly, more events will help determine best practices.
The Kingdom has also introduced Vision 2030. It aims to strengthen and diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy, with a focus on tourism too.
Hajj 2021 COVID-19 Restrictions
After months of waiting, we now know the restrictions and permits for this year’s Hajj. While there was disappointment for some, there is also progress overall. After last year, the Kingdom has developed its strategy to make Hajj even more accessible.
The development of technologies such as robots, the amount of staffing, and safety protocols aim to help protect everyone involved, inshallah.
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