Ensuring Ebola-free Haj
By: Abdulateef Al-Mulhim
Haj season started just recently. Haj or pilgrimage to Makkah is the fifth pillar of Islam. It is required to be performed by a Muslim once in a lifetime if he/she is adult and can afford it financially, without any difficulty or obstacles (Liman Ista’a Elayhi sabila). In other words, a Muslim who does not meet the above conditions has no religious obligation to perform Haj.
Even though the Haj season starts a short time after Ramadan, the actual Haj rituals start about two months after the end of the holy month. This year, the days of Haj will be falling around the beginning of October. Eid Al-Adha, which is celebrated on the 10th of Dhul Hijjah, is likely to be on Oct. 4 subject to the sighting of the new moon. During the Haj season, the Saudi government mobilizes all resources to look after around 3 million pilgrims. Preparations start very early long before the Haj season. It starts with visa issuance and the arrival of pilgrims via land, air and sea. They are taken care of from the time of their arrival till their departure. Before the beginning of the Haj season, various government agencies are pressed into service to ensure all facilities for pilgrims. Hospitals, field hospitals, thousands of ambulances, civil defense personnel, passport control, helicopters, boy scouts, tens of thousands of policemen and many other agencies take part in ensuring the safety and comfort of the millions of pilgrims who arrive in the Kingdom.
During the Haj season, the Kingdom is faced with many challenges. These challenges can range from threats of terrorism to deadly accidental fires and from massive road accidents to deaths due to stampede. Now, the threat is in the form of diseases, such as Ebola. During the past month, Ebola broke out in many western African countries. The way its symptoms start is in itself misleading for doctors. It starts like flu with fever, headache and joint pains. But, a few days later the symptoms change dramatically to vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding from the gum, nose and gastrointestinal tract. After that, the patient would experience low blood pressure and drastic loss of fluid. Health experts say it is not transmitted through the air we breathe, rather it is transmitted through a patient’s fluids. During Haj we have around three million people in very limited space living side by side with each other for days. So, what can happen and what can be done?
The health and well-being of Hajis is very important and it is our duty to ensure their full protection from diseases. It is true that Ebola broke out in places in which health care is not advanced, but, there will be many Hajis coming from west and central African countries that are hit with the virus, which is not treatable. The presence of this virus in congested place can create chaos. There would be strict quarantine procedures if any Ebola case is found and it takes days and may be weeks before doctors can determine if a patient has contracted Ebola.
Saudi Arabia at this stage must take every necessary step to protect the millions of Hajis coming to the Kingdom. Although GCC countries have pledged to take a unified stance to combat the deadly Ebola virus by training health officials and making use of regional facilities to diagnose and treat such diseases, it is also important for the Kingdom to make sure that Hajis do not come from Ebola-stricken countries. Taking care of Ebola patients during Haj can be stressful and it is better to be on the safer side. Haj can be performed in later years by anyone who can’t perform it this year. Haj is a religious duty that can be performed whenever the situation permits. It can be delayed but the disease will not wait if it strikes.