Ramadan begins under the shadow of coronavirus

Ramadan begins under the shadow of coronavirus
Many Muslim-majority states have cancelled communal prayers and cautioned against gathering for fast-breaking meals during the holy month.
5 min read
23 April, 2020
Ramadan is set to begin on Thursday or Friday evening [Getty]
The coronavirus pandemic is cutting off the world's 1.8 billion Muslims from cherished Ramadan traditions as health officials battle to ward off new infections during Islam's holiest month, haunted by multiple outbreaks traced to previous religious gatherings.

Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting, overnight festivity and communal prayer and giving, begins with the new moon this week, and comes amid worldwide debate over when and how to lift virus restrictions. It is expected to begin on Thursday or Friday evening depending on the country.

Keeping the faithful healthy during the entire month poses a whole new challenge.

The virus has already disrupted Christianity's Holy Week, the Jewish holiday Passover, the Muslim umra pilgrimage and other major religious events.

"Ramadan is coming, and people have nothing to eat," said Afghan daily laborer Hamayoon, who goes by only one name.

"The government must have some mercy on us and allow people to work at least half a day to be able to feed themselves."

US President Donald Trump is pushing for a swift nationwide reopening, Vietnam and New Zealand moved Thursday to end their lockdowns and European leaders were gathering via video Thursday to try to reinvigorate their virus-crippled economies.

The coronavirus crisis is far from over, however, and the threat of new outbreaks looms large.

Palestinians prepare traditional Ramadan sweets in the West Bank city of Hebron [AFP]

"The question is not whether there will be a second wave," Dr Hans Kluge, the head of the World Health Organisation's Europe office, said Thursday. "The question is whether we will take into account the biggest lessons so far."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized some German states Thursday for moving too briskly in trying to reopen their economies. Germany has been praised for its proactive approach to the pandemic and has a much lower reported death toll than other large European nations.

"We're not living in the final phase of the pandemic, but still at the beginning," Merkel warned. "Let us not squander what we have achieved and risk a setback. It would be a shame if premature hope ultimately punishes us all."

Governments are bearing that risk in mind as Muslim leaders announce the official start of Ramadan, trying to balance health protection with traditions. Many have closed mosques or banned collective evening prayers.

In addition to Ramadan's sunrise-to-sunset fast, families and friends gather for large festive meals at dusk, worshippers go to mosques for hours of evening prayers and communal meals are held for the poor.

Read more: Muslims in Asia brace for Ramadan in the shadow of coronavirus

Authorities in the capital of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority nation, on Thursday extended to May 22 its strict disease-fighting restrictions — covering the whole holy month.

Turkey banned communal eating during the holiday, and Albanian Muslim leaders urged the faithful to spend more time teaching their children about Islam.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan bowed to the country's religious clerics, refusing to close the mosques despite a warning from the Pakistan Medical Association that such gatherings are like a petri dish to spread the virus in a country that has a fragile health care system.

A mosque attendee places 'social distancing' stickers on the floor in Pakistan, where authorities have refused to shut mosques [AFP]

Egypt's Grand Mufti Shawki Allam said healthy Muslims have a religious obligation to fast despite the global pandemic — but added that coronavirus patients would be "most eligible" for an exemption.

A Bosnian Muslim makeup artist scheduled her daily food market visit at the same time as her father, so they could see each other from a safe distance while buying for fast-breaking Ramadan feasts.

US authorities have also struggled to reconcile religious freedom with stemming the virus. A federal judge plans to deny a bid by three Southern California churches to hold in-person church services during the pandemic, saying government's emergency powers trump what in normal times would be fundamental constitutional rights.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Muslims to "focus on our common enemy — the virus", and repeated an appeal for an immediate cease-fire for all conflicts.

Read more: For Muslim converts, an isolated Ramadan under coronavirus lockdown is nothing new

The UN also warned that more than 135 million people were at acute risk of starvation even before Covid-19 appeared and the virus is making that situation worse. Massive lines have appeared for food banks from the Texas city of El Paso to the Paris suburbs, and food scarcities were hitting Africa especially hard.

"On one hand, the lockdown and lack of jobs. And on the other hand, Ramadan is coming and the prices for all food items have gone up. It is a huge problem," shopkeeper Noor Alam lamented in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Syrian artist Aziz al-Asmar paints a mural in the town of Binnish, Idlib [AFP]

The EU has pledged 20 billion euros ($22 billion) to help vulnerable communities globally. EU leaders were holding a virtual summit Thursday to take stock of the damage the coronavirus has inflicted on the bloc's own citizens and to thrash out an economic rescue plan.

Meanwhile, scientists are reporting new signs that the virus was circulating in countries earlier than initially thought.

Two people with coronavirus died in California as much as three weeks before the US reported its first death from the disease in late February. On Thursday, a new genetic study published by Spain's main epidemiology research center suggested that the virus was spreading in the country in mid-February, weeks before the first local contagion clusters were identified.

Read more: Muslims create 'mini mosques' to beat Ramadan lockdown blues amid coronavirus

The coronavirus has infected more than 2.6 million people and killed over 184,000, including more than 45,000 in the United States, according to a tally compiled by John Hopkins University from official government figures. The true numbers are undoubtedly far higher.

While most people suffer from only mild or moderate symptoms, the elderly and the infirm have been hardest hit by the virus. The WHO's Kluge said Thursday that up to half of Europe's 115,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths have been in nursing homes.

Kluge said a "deeply concerning picture" was emerging of the impact of Covid-19 on long-term homes for the elderly, where care has "often been notoriously neglected". Kluge said health workers in such facilities were often overworked and underpaid and called for them to be given more protective gear and support.

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