This time of year, Mecca is usually teeming with millions of faithful Muslims with the intent of performing Umrah. There are the usual sights—men and women covered in their stark white ihrams, prostrating believers filling up the masjids and the roads—but there is something noticeably different this year; the innumerable face masks.
Vendors hawk the surgical masks as a precaution against the H1N1 virus, and many can be seen wearing it around the city. Shopping centers have installed antibacterial stations as well as napkins and towel areas to keep hands clean. The Red Crescent organization has representatives on hand to provide medication and medical assistance to those with the flu or flu-like symptoms all around the Grand Mosque. King Abdullah has even ordered that all hospitals in the area treat anyone with the virus for free, with the government picking up the tab.
The H1N1 virus, more commonly known as the swine flu, has caused more than its fair share of panic and fear in a short amount of time. When it was first discovered to have transmitted from animals to humans earlier this year, many in the scientific and medical community gave dire predictions about the effect it could have on the world population. The media compared it to another coming of the deadly Spanish influenza, which killed millions of people worldwide in the early 20th century. Once it was found to be highly contagious, the World Health Organization raised the threat of the H1N1 virus to a pandemic.
Worried travelers stayed at home, antibacterial stations were installed in many public places, pigs were slaughtered by the thousands, facemasks were passed out by government officials and whole cities were quarantined. Then, a strange thing happened; the worldwide panic seemingly died down. The low number of deaths coupled with the relatively mild symptoms of the flu caused more and more people to dismiss this as yet another flu, nothing to be too worried about.
Since that time, more and more articles have come out about how the virus is simply waiting for a resurgence this fall, and will come back with a vengeance. Many predict that thousands upon thousands will die, and many more will be hospitalized. This has caused many people who have waited their entire lives to perform Umrah or Hajj to become cautious about the risks they take when out in public with so many people packed into single area.
The number of people wanting to perform Umrah has dropped, mostly in part because many doctors have refused to let young or elderly travelers make the journey. These two groups have become some of the biggest targets for the virus and the dwindling numbers of pilgrims has significantly affected the hospitality sector of the area. Hotels have slashed prices left and right to entice more visitors, despite the inherent risks.
Despite all of the fears, many pilgrims have not only come to perform Umrah, but have eschewed the face masks, instead leaving it up to the divine. A common refrain has been, "I am in Allah's home, what happens here is supposed to happen."