Storms Threaten Hajj Pilgrims’ Safety; Indonesia Plans Fast-Track for Elderly

Braving heavy rains and the swine flu pandemic, 2.5 million Muslims gathered on Wednesday in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the hajj, the world’s largest annual religious pilgrimage. Three pilgrims from Asia and one from Africa, all of them already suffering from other health problems, had died of swine flu ahead of the official start of the rites. But proven and suspected infections from the H1N1 flu amid hajj participants numbered only 67, said Dr. Khaled Marghlani, a spokesman from the Saudi Health Ministry. “Everything is going smoothly, thanks to God,” he said. Marghlani said the threat of heavy rains on Wednesday could pose greater risks to pilgrims’ health, but authorities had “planned for this possibility.” Flooding in Mecca could complicate the movement of so many people because drainage systems were limited in the normally parched country. Flooding in the tent city of Mina “would be a catastrophe,” said Karim Saleh, 34, a pilgrim from Qatar. Meanwhile, the Indonesian government is considering giving elderly applicants for the hajj pilgrimage priority so fewer frail people undertake the strenuous rites, in an effort to reduce the number of people dying during the hajj. As of Tuesday, 96 Indonesian pilgrims had already died during this year’s hajj, according to state news agency Antara. Records showed that 446 Indonesian pilgrims died during the hajj last year, said Abdul Ghafur Djawahir, the secretary to the director general of hajj and umroh (minor pilgrimage) management at the Ministry of Religious Affairs. He estimated that 35 percent of this year’s 207,000 Indonesian pilgrims were over the age of 65 or had serious illnesses. With a relatively small national annual quota of about 200,000, many of the faithful from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, spend years on the long waiting list before finally being accepted to take part in the pilgrimage. Ghafur said the proposal to give the elderly priority would soon be forwarded to the House of Representatives’ Commission VIII, which oversees religious affairs. “To this day, there are about 800,000 names on the hajj waiting list,” he said. “We haven’t counted how many of them are over 65 years old, but we want to cut the risk of senior citizens getting ill or dying during the pilgrimage.” Ghafur stressed that the government would not prohibit the elderly or the sick from undertaking the hajj, saying the health of all pilgrims was closely inspected and those with illnesses were provided proper medication. Sholah Imari, director of environmental health at the Ministry of Health, said most of last year’s casualties died during or shortly after the peak rite, the Wukuf, a series of rituals that takes up to five days and includes having to spend roughly an entire day around Mount Arafah. Sholah said about two-thirds of last year’s deaths occurred after the Wukuf rituals, with many senior citizens dying simply because of their frailty. Heart failure and respiratory problems were the main causes of death, he said. All bodies are buried in Saudi Arabia.

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