Monday 24 October 2016

A sacred procession that ended in tragedy

Published 25/09/2015 | 02:30

Saudi ambulances arrive at the scene of the tragedy
Saudi ambulances arrive at the scene of the tragedy

Those of all religions, and none, will have been deeply touched by the tragedy near Mecca. The scale of what happened on the most solemn pilgrimage on Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice), is difficult to conceive.

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The rows of bodies in the simple white robes worn by many of the pilgrims made for a heartbreaking sight.

Another extremely poignant aspect of the disaster was that so many of the pilgrims were in their golden years.

It is often only the elderly who get to fly to Mecca when they have managed to save enough money.

The pilgrimage is one of the great testaments to faith in the world. The number of people attending the ritual known as the Hajj rose from 57,000 in 1921 to a high of 3.2 million three years ago.

With more than 700 deaths, the disaster was the worst to befall the pilgrimage since July 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were crushed to death in a tunnel near Mecca. Sadly, it is no coincidence that both stampedes occurred on the same date, which is Islam's most important feast.

This catastrophe is likely to raise questions about the authorities' handling of the huge crowds of the devout.

The pilgrimage is meant to be followed by all observant Muslims, and therefore enormous crowds are inevitable. It takes place in several stages over five days, and includes pilgrims circling the Kaaba (a cube-like building in the centre of Mecca's Grand Mosque) en masse and throwing seven stones at pillars called Jamarat, which represent the devil. It is a massive logistical challenge.

But the catastrophe is all the more shocking given the lengths to which the Saudi authorities have gone, installing sophisticated crowd-control technology. They have spent billions of dollars to try to prevent such incidents.

For such a sacred and honoured procession to have ended in a mass loss of life has understandably unleashed a wave of sympathy across the world.

Overstretched maternity hospitals at crisis point

The plight of mothers who lose their babies sharing wards with newborns is unspeakably cruel.

So too is the situation faced by those women who have miscarried and must wait in maternity hospitals alongside women with their children in their arms or in buggies.

This is the tragic, avoidable reality for women and their families day in, day out and it is an inevitable consequence of the chronic underinvestment in our overstretched and under-resourced maternity hospitals.

Maternal death rates in Ireland, which has one of the highest fertility rates in Europe, are among the lowest in the developed world despite, or perhaps in spite of such chronic underinvestment.

Ireland has the lowest number of obstetricians and gynaecologists per 100,000 women and the lowest per 1,000 live births of all OECD countries. In addition, we are losing our best and brightest graduates as well as existing staff to countries offering better pay and conditions.

Yesterday's calm, informed presentation to the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children by Dr Sharon Sheehan, Master and CEO of the Coombe Maternity Hospital, lays bare a real crisis at the heart of our maternity services.

Irish Independent

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