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What The Hajj Is Like During The Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The coronavirus strikes again. The Hajj, which starts tomorrow, will not allow the normal gathering of more than 2 million Muslims. The annual pilgrimage to Mecca is known for teeming masses of people who walk closely together, sit shoulder to shoulder to pray and often camp out in crowded tents. But this year only an estimated 1,000 people are expected to attend. Physical distancing will be enforced, and masks will be required. Bloomberg's Saudi Arabia correspondent Vivian Nereim has been covering how Hajj will be different this year. She joins us now. Welcome.

VIVIAN NEREIM: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Can you just start out by reminding us what the religious significance of the Hajj is for Muslims all around the world?

NEREIM: So the Hajj is one of the most important acts that any Muslim might perform in their life. It is considered to be one of the five pillars of Islam. It is actually obligatory for every Muslim to perform the Hajj once in their life if they're able to financially and physically. So it's something that people save up for and apply for again year after year.

CHANG: Well, because the Saudi government is determined to make sure people are physically distanced this year, you estimate that only about a thousand people will be in attendance tomorrow. So how are these 1,000 people selected? Like, where are they from?

NEREIM: Yeah. So one thing that's been a little bit strange - the government has been a little bit secretive about what the actual number is this year. The Hajj minister has said it's between around a thousand and 10,000. We do think it's going to be probably closer to around a thousand, and that includes about 30% Saudi nationals. And the other 70% are foreign citizens who reside already in Saudi Arabia. So nobody will be performing the Hajj this year coming from outside of the kingdom.

They were selected through an online vetting system. Most of it was about health criteria. You had to be between the ages of 20 and 50. You had to not have any chronic diseases. So everybody who is selected among the pilgrims did get a PCR test for coronavirus, and then they were isolated during a home quarantine for about a week, after which they traveled to Mecca. And they've been in a hotel quarantine, sort of isolated in individual hotel rooms for about four days now. So they haven't even really met each other for the most part. They communicate over WhatsApp. You know, they get their meals through room service. It's a very different experience than it would be in a normal year, when you're kind of a human sea of people from all over...

CHANG: Yeah.

NEREIM: ...The world gathering and eating and praying together.

CHANG: Besides there being dramatically fewer people this year, how do you think the Hajj will feel different compared to years past?

NEREIM: Well, I think it's just a completely different animal in a lot of ways. I mean, normally, a huge part of going to Mecca and performing the pilgrimage is just that rubbing shoulders with people from all different social classes and all different nationalities. Obviously, that physical closeness is completely gone. So there's...

CHANG: Yeah.

NEREIM: ...Going to be social distancing markers around the Grand Mosque to ensure that people are actually, you know, 1.5 meters apart. So that's a very big deal. There's also a point in the pilgrimage when pilgrims would be gathering pebbles, small stones along the route that they throw at these three stone pillars that symbolize kind of the repelling of evil. And these pebbles this year will be distributed to them in pre-sealed packets, and they're sterilized.

CHANG: Wow.

NEREIM: So it's a very different kind of feel there. They're also wearing these tracking bracelets to ensure that they complied with the quarantine. And if they stray more than a certain distance from their phone, it kind of urges them to reconnect to their Bluetooth. So there's a lot of technology that's infusing this year's Hajj in order to kind of enforce that social distancing and make sure that the Hajj doesn't become a super-spreader event because Saudi Arabia, like a lot of other countries, has had a couple of different peaks of coronavirus cases, which are now on the decline. And Mecca, at one point, was really the epicenter of Saudi Arabia's coronavirus infections.

CHANG: Vivian Nereim is the Saudi Arabia correspondent for Bloomberg News. Thank you very much for joining us today.

NEREIM: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.