The coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic has caused countless events to be cancelled, forcing them onto the digital realm and leaving them to rely on the power of modern technology. Even the G20 summit ended up online.
The annual Hajj pilgrimage, however, is one of those events that cannot be held digitally. Accordingly, the dreams and expectations of over 2 million pilgrims from all around the world, businesses in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, as well as countless travel agencies have been hit.
It is not yet officially confirmed if the Hajj – due to take place in August this year – will be cancelled. However, the fact that Saudi Arabia has asked a number of countries not to sign Hajj contracts and has requested Muslims worldwide not to make any further plans for the pilgrimage suggest that it may well be.
One company which is part of Britain’s Hajj industry is Birmingham-based Hujjaj.co the co-founder of which is Shoaib Hussain. I spoke to him in order to gain a closer insight into the issue. His company serves as a platform for comparing Hajj and Umrah packages provided by various agencies and operators in the UK.
Hussain told me that while his company has not been particularly affected by the crisis due to its role as a platform rather than a provider, “A lot of hajj companies and providers are really feeling the financial hit from the cancellation of hajj… Obviously Hajj is the main season where they make their money, and of course, they won’t be able to do that this year. A couple of companies have contacted me and they’ve said they don’t know how they’re going to survive because Hajj was a core part of their business.”
He made it clear to me that the Saudi authorities “don’t want to announce anything too early because if somehow a vaccine comes out or there’s some preventative measure which we figure out, the first thing they would want to do is to open up Makkah so that pilgrims could come back and worship.” The authorities are unwilling to cancel the pilgrimage until they are absolutely certain that safety will be compromised. “It looks unlikely that this year’s hajj will go ahead, though. Most likely it will be open by 2021. Maybe it will be a step-by-step process to bring people back.”
The likely cancellation of this year’s pilgrimage is not the first time that it will have happened. There have been a number of Hajj cancellations and problems caused by conflicts and disease. The most recent was in 1987 when there was a meningitis outbreak. “As a result,” explained Hussain, “10,000 people contracted the disease. When this happened, the Saudi authorities then made it compulsory to have a meningitis vaccination certificate to get a Hajj visa.”