TOUBA and DAKAR, Senegal -- Tens of thousands of Muslims descended upon Senegal's holy city this week for the annual Grand Magal pilgrimage, a tradition in West Africa that some fear could become a super-spreader event for covid-19.
The Magal honors the founder of the Mouride Brotherhood, Senegal's most influential religious order. In previous years, as many as 3 million people have traveled to the city of Touba during Magal, with many coming from neighboring Gambia.
With Senegal's land borders still closed, fewer pilgrims attended the main events Tuesday. Closely packed lines queued up to enter the Grand Mosque of Touba, though hand sanitizer and masks were required to enter.
Mam Thierno, 41, has lived in Italy for nearly a decade but chose to travel home to Senegal for Magal even amid the pandemic, calling it a deeply moving experience for him and his family.
"To go a year without Magal would be too much for me," he said. "With the pandemic there are people who say we shouldn't hold the Magal in Touba ... I know the disease is here, [covid]-19 exists, but I still came."
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.
Many government ministers and dignitaries joined the pilgrimage too, which 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 pilgrims increased fivefold 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 could 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, area press has reported, except for a dribble late at night.
Many African countries have reported caseloads and deaths linked to covid-19 that are much lower than in other continents, particularly in Europe and the United States. Although many cases may have been missed because of low testing levels, epidemiologists say that the young median age of the continent is likely a significant factor and that some countries' hot weather and tendency to live much of life outdoors could play a role. Studies are underway to test the hypothesis that previous exposure to other coronaviruses could have strengthened some people's immune systems.
As with many West African countries, Senegal had good protocols in place for contact tracing, partly as a result of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and can turn tests for the coronavirus around fast. It never reported many more than 100 new coronavirus cases a day, and over the past two months, its caseload has fallen. On Tuesday, that was only 19 of 777 tests done, the health ministry said.
But not everyone with coronavirus-like symptoms receives a test in Senegal, and with more than 80% of virus cases in Africa being asymptomatic, according to the World Health Organization, many cases can go under the radar.
On a trip to Touba last week, Senegal's health minister told area journalists that he would be deploying 5,000 health ministry officials to Touba to monitor it and respond if necessary. He did not respond to calls or text messages requesting an interview or answer questions about why the Magal had not been canceled and why many ministers were attending.
The Magal commemorates the exile of the Mourides' founder, Sheikh Amadou Bamba, to Gabon. French colonial authorities sent him there in 1895, fearful of his pacifist struggle against them.
And the government would have a hard time overruling the Mourides, who wield great power in Senegal, a country of about 16 million people. One young marabout -- a religious leader -- said he was in Touba because their leader had issued a ndiguel, or order.
"We are aware of the national and international context, but we couldn't do otherwise, because of the order coming from the Caliph, who asked all followers to come," said Cheikh Cissé, 28, who runs a Koranic school, and trades religious books in Dakar. "That's why I decided, whatever the situation, to go to Touba."
Most years, there is a ceremony at Amadou Bamba's mausoleum. But that element has been canceled this year, while other events are going ahead.
Information for this article was contributed by Yesica Fisch of The Associated Press.