First batch of Hajj pilgrims start arriving in Saudi Arabia

MAKKAH: Saudi Arabia will on Wednesday begin hosting the annual Hajj pilgrimage that has dramatically downscaled due to the coronavirus pandemic and has barred millions of international pilgrims for the first time in modern history.
Up to 10,000 people residing in the kingdom will participate in the annual ritual, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million that attended last year. The foreign press is barred from this year’s Hajj as the government tightens access to the holy city of Makkah and has enforced strict health restrictions to prevent a virus outbreak during the pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 260,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, while the number of declared global infections exceeded 16 million on Sunday. Mask-clad pilgrims began arriving into Makkah over the weekend and were subject to temperature checks and placed in quarantine.
They were given elaborate amenity kits that include sterilised pebbles for a stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a seamless white garment worn by pilgrims, according to a hajj ministry programme document.
Pilgrims are required to be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Makkah and will also have to quarantine after the pilgrimage. The ministry said it has set up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims, who will be required to observe social distancing.
Saudi authorities initially said only around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom would be permitted for Hajj but local media reports say as many as 10,000 will be allowed.
Hajj Minister Mohammad Benten insisted the process was transparent, telling a Saudi-owned television that “health determinants” formed the basis of selection.
The ministry said non-Saudi residents of the kingdom from around 160 countries competed in the online selection process. It said foreign residents would make up 70 percent of all selected pilgrims.
It did not explain how many applied, and some disappointed pilgrims have complained that the government-run scheme was not clearly outlined and no reason was given for their rejection.
The ministry has said the Saudi pilgrims were selected from a pool of health practitioners and military personnel who have recovered from COVID-19. 
Despite the pandemic, many pilgrims consider it is safer to participate in this year’s ritual without the usual colossal crowds cramming into tiny religious sites, which make it a logistical nightmare and a health hazard. 
The virus has also battered pilgrimage-reliant businesses that support hundreds of thousands of jobs in Makkah, from travel agents to street barbers and souvenir shops.
Mecca has seen a construction boom in recent years with new shopping malls, apartments, and luxury hotels, but most premises have lain empty since the pandemic reached the kingdom.
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