MECCA // Mohammed Shuaib wore a mask as he walked amid a flood of Muslims arriving for Haj, but his wariness about the Mers virus that has struck Saudi Arabia did not seem to be widely shared.
“Prevention is better than cure,” said Mr Shuaib, 67, an Algerian pensioner, as he removed his mask to speak.
He was one of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who poured into the holy city of Mecca on Friday for the annual pilgrimage.
People dressed in ihram, a two-piece seamless garment of white cloth, filled the area around the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest place of worship, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba and is witnessing massive construction work.
Just two days before the official start of Haj, about one million faithful performed midday prayers at the Grand Mosque as the imam who officiated called for a peaceful and quiet Haj.
The overwhelming majority of people around Mr Shuaib had no masks, and some said they never even heard of the Mers coronavirus, which has claimed 60 lives worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia.
The latest two Saudi victims were announced on Thursday.
“We heard that the coronavirus is deadly and people in this case should protect themselves,” said Mr Shuaib, accompanied by his nephew, who also wore a mask.
“I obtained the mask from Algerian authorities, who also briefed pilgrims about the disease,” he said.
Haj, the largest annual gathering in the world, starts on Sunday and ends on October 18, with about 2 million pilgrims expected to take part.
The fact the kingdom accounts for the overwhelming majority of cases has raised concerns. Some fear pilgrims could be infected and return to their homelands carrying the virus.
But the authorities have said they are optimistic Haj will pass without incident, given Muslims also go on lesser pilgrimages at other times of the year and there has been no problem.
This year’s minor pilgrimage season, or Umrah, during Ramadan passed off without any Mers outbreak even though millions took part.
On Thursday, the Saudi health minister Abdullah Al Rabia said no cases of the virus had been recorded at this year’s event.
“So far, no case for any epidemic has been recorded among the pilgrims, especially the coronavirus,” media quoted him as saying.
But to be on the safe side, the minister said precautions against the outbreak of any disease, especially Mers, have been beefed up this year with strict measures.
Health employees have been strictly instructed to isolate any suspected case and carry out the necessary laboratory tests to ensure the safety of pilgrims.
The minister said up to 600 public health employees wearing face masks were deployed at Jeddah international airport to screen arriving pilgrims and ensure they had the necessary vaccinations, mainly shots against influenza and meningitis.
Immigration officers at the airport, the main entry point for pilgrims from abroad, and other staff also wore masks as did most of the soldiers manning road blocks to prevent illegal pilgrims.
Riyadh has also urged the elderly and chronically ill, who are particularly susceptible to Mers, to avoid Haj and have advised pilgrims to wear face masks.
Even so, most of the pilgrims interviewed seemed unmoved over the disease and were not wearing masks.
“We depend on God,” said Ahmad Mahmoud from Egypt as he walked without a mask in a sea of people near the Grand Mosque.
Mr Mahmoud said he was given a mask at the airport and another when he arrived at the hotel and will wear it later.
Harris Zawawi from Malaysia wore a mask, but said it was not specifically against the coronavirus, “which I did not hear about”.
“It is to protect me from contagious diseases in general as I was advised by Malaysian Haj authorities,” said Mr Zawawi, who was performing Haj for the second time.
Experts are struggling to understand Mers, for which there is still no vaccine.
It is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible disease with symptoms similar to the Sars virus that erupted in Asia in 2003. Sars infected 8,273 people, nine per cent of whom died, and sowed economic chaos.
Like Sars, Mers is believed to have jumped from animals to humans. It shares the former’s flu-like symptoms, but differs by also causing kidney failure.
* Agence France-Presse