While the government contemplates the logistics, costs and implications for personal liberty of introducing quarantine for travelers, and hostile states whip up anti-vax sentiment, we might take a peek at the link between faith and pestilence, as sadly the two often travel hand in hand. Amongst the largest gatherings on the planet is the Hindu pilgrimage festival – the Kumbh Mela. In 2021 the fair will be held at Haridwar (27th February through April 30th). It is estimated that around a million people a day will attend; that number rising to 5 million on days considered to be auspicious. Over the course of the festival tens of millions are expected. While the Indian authorities are putting many safety measures in place, including social distancing, mask-wearing and evidence of a negative RT-PCR test, it’s hard to imagine that such immense numbers of pilgrims will be safe even with such precautions, or that existing health care facilities will be able to deal with an outbreak. And with a dearth of formal latrines and millions taking part in ritual bathing, such an event seems inevitable. In 1783, when numbers were a small fraction of what they are in our age, a cholera epidemic broke out at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar killing 20,000 pilgrims within the first eight days.
The fifth pillar of Islam the duty to undertake the Hajj, falls to all Muslims healthy enough to travel and with the financial means to do so: today, given the prevailing COVID pandemic, there are further conditions attached to travelling to Mecca, including the caveat that only pilgrims between the ages of 18 and 50 are able to apply for a visa. This is undoubtedly a wise precaution born of historic experience. In the 19th century, the introduction of steam ships and the completion of the Suez Canal cut the journey time for pilgrims to Mecca making the Hajj more widely affordable. Shipping companies entering the pilgrim travel market often packed poorer travellers into unsafe and unsanitary vessels with terrible consequences. In 1865 an outbreak of cholera killed 15,000 of the 90,000 pilgrims in the Hijaz at the time and as this epidemic spread out across Europe, it claimed a further 200,000 lives. Keen to avoid a repeat of this disaster, in the years which followed, the British and Meccan authorities established quarantine centres in Egypt and Yemen for pilgrims from India.
The Jewish festival of Passover, once marked by pilgrimage to Jerusalem, is now largely celebrated at home by the diaspora. On Seder night (either the first or second night of the festival according to varying traditions) celebrants retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, which includes an account of the 10 plagues which were rained down upon the Egyptians when they refused to allow the Israelites to leave. When plague number 4 – the swarm of creatures – possibly flies or locusts – attacked the Egyptians the Pharaoh promised to liberate the Israelites if Moses would send this plague out. In the event, the Pharaoh failed to keep his promise and to cut a long story short, after more plagues and suffering all round, Moses ultimately parted the Red Sea and led his people out of Egypt. The tragic rider to that tale of plague and oppression is that during the Black Death (1346-53), Jewish communities in Europe were amongst those targeted by mobs, wrongly believing them to be in some way responsible. Rumour and speculation about the origins and transmission of pandemic disease it seems, is nothing new….
..And neither is the concept of quarantine. The Black Death claimed the lives of up to 75–200 million people – an estimated 30% of all Europeans and a significant proportion of Asia’s population at that time. Like the Spanish flu of the 20th century and COVID in the 21st, the bubonic plague was not a one-off event; rather it came in waves. A century after the Black Death, the Venetian authorities extended the mandatory isolation period from 30 to 40 days: from trentine to quarantine. At that time, Venice was both a major trading state and an important leg of the pilgrim route between Europe and the Holy Land – so it must have cost them dear. But this was a simple choice between life and liberty.
We are making those same hard choices today, including those who have sadly had to scrap their plans to travel to Santiago de Compostela in this Jubilee Year. For those who prefer to rail against the constraints of quarantine or the value of vaccines or the reality of COVID as a mortal threat, you’ll be pleased to know that when it comes to pestilence and pilgrimage – you don’t have to choose – you can have both…