DAKAR : On all the roads to the holy city of Touba, the traffic was bumper to bumper. Buses packed with pilgrims inched along., their roofs piled high with foam mattresses.

Tollbooth attendants smiled in greeting and held out ungloved hands for change, all day long. Many people wore masks. Many did not.

Huge throngs of people traveled in recent days to Touba, 120 miles east of Senegal's capital, Dakar, for West Africa's largest religious gathering - the Magal - which commemorates the exile of Muslim spiritual leader.

It is expected to be one of the biggest events to be held anywhere in the world since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. In a typical year, as many as four or five million attend the Magal, though no estimates were yet available this year.

The leader of the Mourides, the Muslim sect that organizes the event, issued the annual call for pilgrims to come, despite the pandemic.

The government of Senegal, which has been heaped with praise for its handling of the outbreak, did not try to ban it. And the levels of traffic suggested that most people were going ahead despite the risks.

One of the beauties of the Magal, in normal years, is its emphasis on community and hospitality. Pilgrims do not book hotel rooms: Touba's residents open up their homes and travelers bed down, many to each room. Lunch and dinner in the Senegalese tradition, are usually eaten off a communal plate.

''My family lives in Touba. I host a lot people at home. That's why I couldn't stay in Dakar,'' said Serigne Diop, a 31-year-old mechanic who spoke by phone from Touha. He said he was surrounded by people not wearing masks and took an overcrowded bus from the capital to get there.

Many government ministers and dignitaries joined the pilgrimage, too. The event officially took place last Tuesday but lasts about a week.

It has already been well documented that Magal pilgrims are particularly susceptible to viruses, because of the event's inherent lack of social distancing. 

A study released last year, showed that the prevalence of respiratory tract infection symptoms among the pilgrims increased five-fold  following the pilgrimage.

This year, the authors of that study released a letter warning older people and those with chronic medical conditions to stay away from the Magal, and urged those who attended to wear masks and wash hands.

''During the event, streets around the Grand Mosque and the general market present an extremely high density of population,'' the letter said. ''All these conditions are very likely to favor the transmission of respiratory pathogens among pilgrims.''

Washing hands may be difficult. The number of people using Touba's water multiplies during the Magal, and most years there are water shortages. This year, too, faucets are running dry, the local press has reported, except for a drible late at night.

Many African countries have reported coronavirus cases and deaths that are much lower than in other continents, particularly Europe and North America.

Although many cases may have been missed because of low testing levels, epidemiologists say that the young median age of Africa is likely a significant factor, and that some countries' hot weather and residents' tendency to live much of their life outdoors may play a role.

Studies are underway to test the hypothesis that previous exposure to other coronaviruses may have strengthened some people's immune system.

The World Students Society thanks author, Ruth Maclean.


Post a Comment

Grace A Comment!