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Braving coronavirus, pilgrims flock to Senegal's 'little Mecca'

TOUBA, Senegal, Oct 6 (Reuters) - Organisers of an annual religious festival in the Senegalese city of Touba are expecting three to five million pilgrims this week, despite the main ceremony on Tuesday being cancelled in an effort to lower the risk of coronavirus contagion.

Other events are being video-streamed to avoid overcrowding, but no restrictions are in place to prevent followers of the Mouride Brotherhood from making the trip to the sacred site.

The expected crowds would represent a marked departure from religious gatherings and sports events around the world that have been cancelled or severely curtailed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections during the global pandemic.

Senegal has reported 15,141 cases of the coronavirus so far and 312 deaths.

Touba was founded in 1883 by Amadou Bamba, also known as the Serigne of Touba, considered holy to disciples of the Sufi Muslim order.

“With Serigne Touba everything is possible, I am not afraid despite the pandemic, we took precautions,” said Moussa, a 21-year-old devotee wearing a blue surgical mask.

Health officials in what is known as Senegal’s “little Mecca” armed themselves with masks, hand gel and rapid tests in order to reduce the risk of visitors to the Grand Magal festival contracting the virus and taking it home with them.

Since Bamba’s death in 1927, Mourides have followed his call for an annual pilgrimage, known as the Grand Magal, which marks Bamba’s exile to Gabon in 1895 by French colonial authorities who feared his growing influence.

Touba authorities have distributed rapid coronavirus test kits that can give results in eight minutes to health centres across the city.

A positive result will be followed up with a more reliable Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test, said Abdoulaye Bousso, director of the Health Emergency Operation Centre in Senegal.

“The (rapid test) is very important for us because it enables us to sort out cases more quickly,” he said.

At the Saliou Mbacke Health Centre, nurse Ndiaye swabbed a man’s nose and carried out a Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) which came back negative.

“With the pilgrims coming to celebrate the Magal we can’t wait long for results. But with the RDT test it’s better, it really works well in this situation where you have COVID and Magal at the same time,” she said. (Reporting by Christophe Van Der Perre; writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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