Pilgrims gather for virus-hit hajj as US, India record grim data

Mecca (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) –


Mask-clad Muslims gathered at Saudi Arabia's holiest site for a hajj pilgrimage on Wednesday that has been massively scaled down because of the coronavirus pandemic, as the US, China and India registered alarming new figures.

The hajj in Mecca is usually one of the world's largest religious gatherings and last year attracted 2.5 million visitors, but this year a maximum of 10,000 people will take part.

All worshippers are being tested before arriving at the site and will have to quarantine after the pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, which has one of the largest outbreaks in the Middle East.

The country with the world's largest outbreak, the United States, continues to post grim figures -- almost 1,600 died in a day according to Tuesday's figures, the highest daily toll for more than two months. Some 60,000 new cases were registered in 24 hours.

India almost matched the US for daily infections, confirming 50,000 new cases on Wednesday to push its total past 1.5 million.

The official figures in India, however, continue to be undercut by studies suggesting a huge proportion of poorer people living in crowded slums have had the disease but have never been tested.

"At least in the slums, we think it is largely because social distancing wouldn't work simply because of the population density," said Ullas S. Kolthur, who was involved in a study this week that found more than half of slum-dwellers in Mumbai have had the infection.

The virus has killed more than 660,000 people around the world and total infections are approaching 17 million.

- 'No second wave' -

But politicians in Europe and North America -- among the worst-hit regions -- are still struggling to frame a coherent response.

While US President Donald Trump sought to link a spike in cases to protests in some cities, leaders in Congress conceded late on Tuesday they were still far from a deal to support the world's leading economy.

Democrats had proposed a $3 trillion aid package and Republicans this week put forward a $1 trillion deal -- but many in their own party disagree on principle with such spending.

In Europe, where several countries have slapped restriction on travel to and from Spain, officials are ramping up a spat over the seriousness of the current outbreak.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, fresh from announcing quarantine for travellers returning from Spain, suggested the rest of Europe could be facing a second wave -- despite his own country's dismal figures.

France's health minister hit back on Wednesday, saying his country was categorically not in a second wave.

"Clusters are emerging, we have warning signs from certain hospitals that have seen a trend of increasing admission," Olivier Veran said, adding: "We are testing a lot more."

Spain, one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic, insists it is a safe destination and was critical of Britain's blanket quarantine, which includes islands without significant outbreaks.

- India's office-hospital -

The blizzard of alarming data continued too in east Asia, with China seeing a three-month high of 101 new virus cases on Wednesday because of a localised outbreak in the northern port city of Dalian.

Officials blamed contaminated packaging on imported seafood -- similar reasons have been offered to explain previous Chinese outbreaks.

Further south, Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam warned the financial hub was facing a "large-scale community outbreak" that could lead to a "collapse of our hospital system".

From Wednesday, all residents in the densely packed city of 7.5 million must wear masks outdoors and restaurants can only serve takeaway meals, in a blow for diners during the city's hot and humid summer.

"It's so hot outside now, 10 minutes after I start work, my shirt is all sweaty," a construction worker told AFP as he tucked into a pork chop, admitting he missed air-conditioned restaurants.

While some labour in the heat to make a living, others have been inspired others to take action for their communities.

One Indian businessman has converted his office into an 85-bed facility to provide free treatment for the poor.

"How could poor people afford such treatment?" the property developer told AFP.

"So I decided to do something and contribute in the fight against the deadly virus."