Egypt: Coronavirus upends Ramadan traditions

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 22 Apr 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is casting its shadow over the holy month

The festive spirit that normally fills the streets at this time of year takes on unique resonance as Ramadan coincides with the scourge of coronavirus. (photo: Reuters)

Mahmoud cleans a small mosque in Nasr City, east of Cairo. For 20 years he has spent his weekends doing so: the job supplements the income he earns during the week from his job as cleaning a government school in the same neighbourhood.

As Ramadan draws near, Mahmoud would normally be working three rather than two days, doing what he calls “the big annual clean-up to prepare the house of God for worshippers” who turn out in larger numbers during Ramadan than the rest of the year. This year, though, he is doing only a quick clean-up.

The government has already ordered places of worship to close to halt the spread of COVID-19 and in an official statement this week, the Ministry of Religious Endowments said no date had been set for the re-opening of mosques.

A source at the Ministry of Endowments told Al-Ahram Weekly that the authorities are aware the continued closure of mosques will disappoint many Muslims for whom taraweeh, the Ramadan night prayers, are an essential part of the holy month, but opening mosques was “out of the question given the circumstances”.

It is not the only disappointment coronavirus has brought. The popular umra (minor pilgrimage) has also been suspended this year as the authorities in Saudi Arabia seek to close the holy sites of Mecca and Medina to combat the spread of the virus.

On 25 February Mohamed Sweifi, owner and manager of a company that runs umra and hajj tours, had to spend 24 hours managing the fallout from the sudden cancelation as several groups of his clients were preparing to embark on the umra. At the time, Sweifi thought it would take a couple of weeks for things to be back to normal.

Many pilgrims who thought that they would be able to complete their pilgrimage in Ramadan are now reclaiming their deposits, resigned to the fact there is no telling when they will be able to undertake their trips.

“It’s a difficult time. We have to refund travellers but we are also having problems collecting the money we deposited to book planes, hotels, buses and so on,” Sweifi said.

It is a problem the 1,700 travel companies that manage umra and hajj trips — a multi-million pound business — all face.

“We also need to plan for the future. We have no idea yet whether hajj trips will be going ahead,” said Sweifi.

While there has been no official decision from the Saudi authorities on the matter, the advice tourist companies in Egypt have received is to put all hajj plans on hold.

Sweifi is realistic. He does not expect the 65,000 Egyptians who travel to Mecca and Medina each year for the hajj will all be going this year. If the Saudi authorities do permit the pilgrimage to go ahead, the numbers allowed to visit the holy sites will be reduced, most probably by two thirds at best, from the usual three million.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic goes way beyond the suspension of taraweeh and umra. Many informal workers have found themselves without work as the economy slows down.

Laila, a housewife in her early 30s, would usually be gathering money from family and friends to provide hot meals, on every day of the holy month, to distribute to the homeless and others who have nowhere to go for Iftar.

This year, Laila says she will not be able to distribute the meals given the risk of infection. It is “really heartbreaking”, she laments, to stop a tradition she has kept for 10 years.

Laila has decided to contribute the money she has gathered to provide dry food rations to workers at cafés in her neighbourhood whose income has collapsed as a result of cafés closing. Not that it is as large a sum as usual. Laila says some of her friends have had to cut their contributions as the economic situation cuts into their own incomes.

Meanwhile, the government has announced measures to lessen the impact of the economic downturn and help businesses to keep on paying their employees. The Ministry of Finance has announced a set of measures to mitigate the impact on exposed sectors, while the Ministry of Social Solidarity, in cooperation with leading charities, is working on a plan to offer support to informal workers. The Ministry of Supply is providing basic food items at its outlets at a 20 to 30 per cent discount.

“There are attempts by both the government and civil society to ease the pressure people will face in a month that is supposed to be marked by festivities but obviously this will not cover everyone,” says Laila. “It’s going to be a very subdued Ramadan this year.”

At the Ministry of Health the fear is that observation of social distancing will relax during the month of Ramadan, leading to higher rates of COVID-19 infection.

Decision-makers are aware that it will be harder for people to observe the full gamut of precautionary measures for a month than it was during the long Easter weekend.

In a Safe Ramadan Practices advisory issued late last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said “cancelling social and religious gatherings should be seriously considered.”

The WHO advisory note added: “A strong communication strategy is essential to explain to the population the reasons for decisions taken. Clear instructions should be given and the importance of following national policies reinforced. The communication strategy should also include proactive messaging on healthy behaviours during the pandemic and use different media platforms.”

Medical sources say that the current daily rate of fewer than 200 new positive cases and around 15 deaths could easily jump if people fall into traditional Ramadan socialising mode.

The same sources expect Egypt hit the peak infection rate in mid to late May, ie towards the end of Ramadan and during the Eid holiday.

They say the target is to secure a peak of 250 to 300 positive cases daily, and keep mortality at 15 deaths a day, for two weeks. If the figures are significantly higher than this, then the Ministry of Health will have no option but to ask the government to impose stricter measures.

The beginning of the curfew is currently set at 8pm, about 90 minutes after the start of Iftar.

This week the National Centre for Social and Criminological Studies (NCSC) issued the results of an opinion poll gauging the public’s assessment of the government’s handling of the crisis. Of the sample group of 140 people two thirds were content with the government’s performance. The same proportion said they would support a total lockdown of 10 to 14 days to help reduce the infection rate.

So far the government has not opted for a lockdown in the hope that guidelines on social distancing and other safety measures will be sufficient to keep the infection rate under control. However, Minister of State for Information Osama Heikal has warned on several occasions that if the public fails to observe the guidelines the authorities will have to impose stricter measures.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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