It was a necessary preventive step when the Saudi Health Ministry advised that the young, old, and the sick should refrain from performing the minor pilgrimage and the pilgrimage this season in view of the spread of the swine flu everywhere in the world. It is a precautionary step that makes it easier to contain the problem.
Yet, the officials still have many apprehensions that the epidemic, despite being limited at present, has no vaccine that can protect humans and no sure treatment. The greatest fear is that the virus will mutate and become more dangerous and thus we all become face to face with a deadly epidemic.
The challenge in the holy city of Mecca is greater than anywhere else in the world. Millions of pilgrims from all over the world arrive in it most months of the year and the challenge becomes greater when they make the pilgrimage during its biggest season, only four months away. Stopping the minor pilgrimage and disrupting the pilgrimage are impossible and banning those arriving from infected countries has now become impossible after the virus has spread to more than a third of the world’s countries.
I know there is an opinion downplaying the danger of the swine flu since its damages, only 700 persons had died from it, are less than the victims of ordinary influenza. This is true but it is an opinion that is permissible for someone who has no responsibility. The spectator can sit and watch how the global health problem will end later on but health officials in the world cannot leave things to theories and argument only. The Spanish flu killed 40 million in only three months last century.
The greatest problem is in Mecca, the kiblah for 1 billion Muslims with 3 million coming to it annually to perform the pilgrimage in addition to 20 million from inside the country and abroad who perform the minor pilgrimage. Since the health authorities have started to warn about the new epidemic openly and following the appearance of several cases during the minor pilgrimage in Mecca, stricter controls on issuing visas to major and minor pilgrims might become necessary to minimize the dangers.
We all know that the pilgrimage is a political problem, not only for the host country like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but also for the Muslim countries that avoid banning their pilgrims, reducing their numbers, or imposing more conditions on them. These mutual sensibilities and apprehensions require more frankness on both sides. Countries from where the pilgrims come are afraid they will return back infected with the virus. Also, the country hosting the pilgrimage fears the arrival in the holy lands of infected pilgrims who will spread the virus to millions of pilgrims in Mecca or the cities they pass through. No matter how much we talk about preventive protection and monitoring, quarantines, and medicines, the dangers would become greater if the epidemic became more virulent.
It must be admitted that this is an exceptional year which require from certain institutions like the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the host country to examine how to deal with the worst possibilities and confront them by admitting the fears and taking precautions.