Catching a respiratory infection can seem inevitable during the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is so common that older pilgrims say a fever is a sign that all remaining sins are being wiped away and the afflicted are to be born pure again.
The fact that millions of people from all over the world perform the rituals shoulder to shoulder in a limited area provides the ideal environment for air-borne viruses to spread.
This year, with the worldwide outbreak of H1N1 swine flu, health experts are warning of the dangers of a swine flu pandemic during umra and hajj, the major pilgrimage due in late November.
The Saudi health authorities say they are on the highest state of alert. The health ministry has been stockpiling Tamiflu, an anti-viral drug, and has set up quarantine sites in major airports.
“The ministry has been through many health experiences before and it is ready to deal with a swine flu outbreak,” the health ministry told local media last month.
Hajj is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, with up to three million visitors each year. Muslims are supposed to perform the pilgrimage once in their lifetime – but when they are physically and financially capable. Many, who cannot afford it or who are denied one of the cherished slots in each country’s allocation, opt for the cheaper, less physically demanding umra.
The World Health Organisation said last month that swine flu was spreading at alarming rates. As many as 2,180 people have died worldwide from the virus, including 19 in Saudi Arabia. Since the first case emerged in the spring, health officials across the Middle East have struggled to deal with the possibility of thousands of pilgrims being infected.
Some have suggested the religious authorities should ban pilgrimages this year. But the sheikhs have so far remained silent, offering only the usual advice that the sick and elderly should consider staying at home.
Travel companies, worried about business in an economic crisis, have been playing down the health threat. Saudi Arabia is capable of handling an epidemic, they say, and similar fears over bird flu three years ago were exaggerated.
Only when an Egyptian woman died of swine flu after performing the umra, did Arab health ministers meeting in Cairo in July issue a statement advising children below the age of 12, people over 65 and those with chronic medical conditions against performing the hajj.
One country after another has started to advise its citizens against the pilgrimage this year. Fear of the disease and restrictive travel measures are also likely to cast a shadow over the roughly $7bn hajj industry.
The umra season in Ramadan, the most popular month for performing the minor pilgrimage, has already been hit hard. Travel companies reported a 40 per cent drop in business in the holy city of Mecca, said Saad al-Qurashi of the Mecca Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In Mecca, companies have said they anticipate losing more than SR1bn ($266m) this Ramadan season due to the quota on the number of pilgrims, according to other reports. Roughly one million pilgrims usually perform umra during the month of Ramadan.
The deputy head of the Hotel and Tourism Committee at Medina’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry said losses at hotels and shops have been “huge”.