The annual pilgrimage season is about to begin in Saudi Arabia, where millions of Muslims visit the holy city of Mecca during Ramadan, which will start around 22 August, and culminates in the Hajj, in the second half of November 2009.
About 3 million pilgrims attend the Hajj annually, more than half of whom from overseas. The Saudi authorities as well as other Muslim nations are bracing themselves for a surge of H1N1 swine flu, as Muslims worship in heavily crowded space.
Both the Saudi Authorities and Muslim health officials decided to ban foreign young children and those over 65 years from attending this year’s Hajj.
Analysis and forecast: increasing risk
The Ramadan pilgrimage and the Hajj season are both highlights of the Muslim religious calendar. They also are important sources of income for the Saudi government. Over 8 million pilgrims visit Saudi Arabia annually, most of who during this season.
The gathering of millions of people during the Hajj often leads to spread of minor communicable diseases, including flu. The gatherings therefore present an ideal place for the spread of swine flu. The Saudi authorities have been trying to take precautions to limit the spread of the virus, but given the large number of people ascending to the holy places at the same time, little can practically be done.
The challenges facing the Saudi government are:
- A predicted drop in the income from the Hajj. Currently, the Hajj pilgrimage is thought to directly contribute over 10 % of the non-oil GDP, in addition to income from related services (such as Hajj-related construction). In addition, other pilgrimages throughout the year (known as the Umra), contribute a significant proportion.
- A surge in the number of pilgrims infected with the virus will not only put a strain on the Saudi healthcare system, but will also help spread the virus in the kingdom. It is thought that 1.5 million Saudis take part in the pilgrimage, therefore potentially putting 5 percent of the population at direct risk.
The pilgrimage season will be the first such event of this size in the northern hemisphere, when the virus is expected to spread faster. The Saudi authorities will be faced with very serious health and economic challenges. Although the Saudi government is trying to take steps to limit the spread, such precautions are unlikely to be effective. This is because:
- Age limits have been put on pilgrims (under 12’s and over 65’s from foreign countries will not be allowed in). The virus has shown that it can affect younger and healthier people. In addition, with more than half the pilgrims coming from Saudi Arabia, this measure only practically applies to a portion of the pilgrims.
- Long incubation period (2 to over 5 days) means that even with limited screening of visitors, those infected will more likely not be detected.
The figure below shows the make-up of the Saudi GDP.