Hajj 2016: How are the Saudis trying to protect Muslim pilgrims from non-communicable health issues?

As the annual Hajj approaches, JOL examined what the Saudi government is doing in order to protect the Muslim pilgrims from non-communicable health issues as they perform one of the five pillars of Islam.
Mecca during the Hajj

On Sunday, JOL examined what non-communicable health issues threaten the Muslim pilgrims in Saudi Arabia. In this article, JOL reviews what measures the Saudi government has put in place in order to ensure the Muslim pilgrims’ health and safety during the annual pilgrimage.

Trauma risks (mainly stampedes)

The first stampede was recorded in 1990 and claimed the lives of over 1,400 pilgrims. Ever since, fatal stampedes have occurred every few years during the Hajj pilgrimages until 2006. A stampede-inclined location during this time period was the Jamarat area in Mina, located close to the Islamic holy city of Mecca. The Jamarat area consist of three pillars that, according to Islamic belief, represent the locations in which the Prophet Ibrahim was tempted by the devil. As a ritual, the pilgrims throw stones at the pillars in order to reenact Ibrahim’s acts to expel the devil.

Stampedes that occurred in 1994, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2006 all took place in the Jamarat area. Between 14 and 380 people died in each of these tragedies. Every incident prompted the Saudi government to implement new policies or make structural changes in order to deem the area safer. For instance, in 1998, the Saudi government attempted to decrease the number of Hajj pilgrims by making it harder for Saudi residents to perform the Hajj. The Saudi authorities required their citizens to apply for Hajj permits. Permits were only issued if the Saudi applicant had not performed the Hajj in the last five years.

In addition, three years later the Saudi government sought to decrease again the number of pilgrims but this time, the focus was placed on the foreign pilgrims. In contrast to the Hajj, the short Umra pilgrimage to Mecca can be undertaken at any time of the year. In 2001, the Saudi government began issuing Umra visas as tourist visas, allowing the foreign Muslims an option to stay in the Kingdom and tour it after or before the Umra. Not only did the Saudi authorities seek to lessen the number of Hajj pilgrims through this tactic but they also hoped to boost their tourism industry.

The Kaaba during Hajj (Mecca, Saudi Arabia)

After the 2004 stampede that claimed the lives of 251 pilgrims, the Jamarat pillars were remodeled as walls, in hopes that this design would help the crowd flow more easily in the area. However, Robert Bianchi cites that this change actually decreased the efficacy of the 1998 and 2001 measures the Saudi government took. According to Bianchi, the improvements in infrastructure actually worsened the crowding issue “by attracting every larger throngs in tiny areas now more cramped and overburdened than ever”. When the Saudi government remodeled the pillars into walls, pilgrims, even if they had already performed the Hajj, wanted to see the newly renovated infrastructure.

This change in infrastructure did not prevent the next stampede, which occurred just two years later in 2006. The number of casualties in this tragedy was grave: 380 killed, 289 injured. After this fatal stampede, the Saudi government spent a reported 1.1 billion dollars on infrastructure changes in the whole Jamarat complex. The new improvements included a 4-level bridge that greatly increases the maximal capacity of the complex. Also, the complex now includes dozens of separate entrances and exits, elevators, pedestrian tunnels and emergency escape passages.

These improvements held off the occurrence of stampedes for almost a decade, until 2015. The Saudi authorities claim that approximately 769 pilgrims were killed and more than 850 were injured during last year’s deadly stampede that occurred in Mina. However, according to other sources, the actual death toll was much higher.

Environmental heat injuries

The Saudi authorities have invested in infrastructure to help prevent heat related injuries. Water mist cooling sprayers have been installed in several areas including the Arafat desert, where pilgrims are required to stand for a long period of time during daylight hours. Hospitals in the area are also equipped with special cooling units, in order to assist the medical staff in treating heat stricken patients. In addition, an underground cool water pipe system and new marble flooring, which absorbs heat while remaining cool to the touch, have been installed in Mecca’s Holy Mosque.

Pilgrims’ health conditions and the impact of an Islamic belief

Pilgrims with concerning health conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and asthma are advised to postpone completing the Hajj until their health improves. However, not all Muslims who suffer from these health issues have the luxury of postponing it because the Hajj usually requires months, if not years, of advanced planning. Because of this reason, pilgrims are usually older, which can be a risk factor for chronic health issues. The advanced age of the average pilgrim combined with the strain of intense physical exertion compounds the likelihood that a pilgrim will suffer an exacerbation of their disease during the Hajj.

In regards to the popular Islamic belief that death during the Hajj is a blessing, health officials and religious leaders have invested countless efforts in order to discourage this underlining conception. However, many still regard it as true.

This article is part 4 of a 5-part series regarding the Hajj and health risks. To find out why the health risks during the Hajj pose a real danger to Saudi Arabia’s position in the Islamic world, look for the next article in the series.

To read part 1 of the series, click here

To read part 2 of the series, click here

To read part 3 of the series, click here

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