Thursday, October 29, 2009

Swine Flu and Religion: the Hajj

Disease, particularly on an epidemic scale, often affects religion. I might point to what Thucydides, for example, says about religion during the great plague of Athens in the fifth century BCE at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. As people died of the plague and the plague spread, all social bonds broke down. He writes:

Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.
(Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.47; trans. Rex Warner)

The complete abandonment of religion (and all law) is a rather extreme version of how disease affects religious observance. But less extreme but still significant changes, mostly coming from religious authorities have been put into play with multiple religions.

A couple weeks ago we heard about changes in Catholic services, when the common cup for Eucharist ceremonies was removed and holy water was no longer available to stem the spread of swine flu. Many churches--as with so many other institutions--are now decked out with hand sanitizer.

But perhaps the biggest change I have seen is in Islam: Saudi authorities are worried that the hajj, the largest gathering of humans on the planet, will be a breeding ground for the flu.

“The hajj is a central ritual of Islam, and our country tries to make it easy for everyone to come,” said Dr. Ziad A. Memish, the country’s assistant deputy minister for preventive medicine. “We’ve said we won’t turn away anyone who arrives at our borders. But we are recommending to other countries whom they should let come.”


While religious pilgrimages feed the souls of those who attend, they often endanger the bodies. There have been several outbreaks of meningitis in Mecca since 1987, and in 2004, Muslim pilgrims spread polio from northern Nigeria across Africa to Saudi Arabia and from there outward to Yemen and Indonesia.


It will be impossible to stop the flu from arriving, the authorities acknowledge, and hard to slow its spread. But they are trying to lessen the damage by keeping the most vulnerable pilgrims away. Every country gets an annual limit as to how many pilgrims it can send. This year the Saudis suggested barring anyone who is pregnant, under age 12, over age 65 or suffering from diabetes, chronic lung, heart, liver or nerve disease, or some other conditions. Psychologically, the ban is hardest on the old and the sick, Dr. Memish said.

In countries with large Muslim populations, many applicants get one or two chances in a lifetime at the pilgrimage that every Muslim is supposed to make, and “some people save money for their whole lives to do it,” he said. More than half of all pilgrims are over 50. In a normal year, many of those desperate to come before they die are pushed in wheelchairs or carried around the Kaaba and through the other rituals.

The new swine flu vaccine could end all the Saudi worries, but only a few countries have even small amounts available, and the Saudis want anyone with access to it to have the shots at least two weeks before arrival.

Godspeed to all making the pilgrimage this year.

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