Just got a text from my wife, who flew to Jeddah this morning to report out two stories for NPR. One concerns swine flu preparations in advance of the annual hajj pilgrimage — the greatest movement of people in world history, being as it is a scramble for as many as 2.5 million Muslims to flock to one location over one three-day period. In a normal year the ritual can result in riots, bridge collapses, outbreaks of meningitis, and fire. But this year calamity looms, because 2009 hajj is also the potential site of a Swine Flu petri dish.
The thinking is that pilgrims have often been saving all their lives to travel from their tiny villages in Kenya, Sudan, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. By the time they fly to Saudi Arabia, they are old, weak, and in poor health — perfect candidates for the flu. Having traveled halfway around the world, these pilgrims proceed to undergo a grueling religious ritual that has them walking long distances, wearing little clothing, sleeping in tents, and praying in cramped quarters.
If flu starts spreading, experts are concerned not just by the versions of the sickness that will take hold in Saudi. Much more frightening, science types say, is how widely and quickly H1N1 and its friends will spread as all the pilgrims begin heading back home. That’s 2.5 million potential flu carriers.
Truth be told, the Saudi government is actually quite rigorous when it comes to the pilgrimage. They have to be. Hajj is an event that every year places the country squarely on the world stage. And being host to the “two holy mosques,” as they’re called, in Mecca and Medina, is how the King and his cohorts derive so much of their power and influence both at home and in the Islamic world. It’s embarrassing when disaster strikes, as has happened in the past.
So not only is there now a dedicated ministry for hajj, called the Ministry of Hajj, there is among other concrete preparations a separate terminal for arriving pilgrims at the airport in Jeddah. All the evidence suggest that the infrastructure is in place not only for the government to make a normal year safe — but actually, impressively, to account for the danger of swine flu in a fair and effective manner.
Back to my wife, who with her driver was just a few minutes ago racing down a bus with a fresh load of pilgrims, seeking to interview them. For fortification, Kelly tells me she’s drinking something called Power Horse, which is apparently the Middle East equivalent of Red Bull.
Don’t let the pilgrims sneeze on you, I said. Don’t worry, Kelly texted, they’ve all been cleared by the airport’s fever screening program.
There you have it: An anecdote from the front lines of Swine Flu’s spread. Wish us all luck over here.