Mohamed, 40, says he comes from a wealthy family as the manager of a private business that his father established some 30 years ago and enjoys a privileged social status. As is the case with millions of other Muslims around the world, Mohamed and his family do charity work for the poor during each religious celebration. But this year there have been problems maintaining this tradition during the holy month of Ramadan.
The reason is the outbreak of the Covid-19. “Whether during Eid Al-Fitr, Eid Al-Adha or Ramadan, we have to do something for the poorer people we know. This includes people who work in our house, our company, or who used to work for us in the past. Each one of them has a large family, and we do what we can, including buying food or clothes for them to make them happy,” Mohamed said.
Mohamed’s family was lucky enough to do the same thing this year despite the challenges imposed by the new coronavirus. “We have never seen something like the coronavirus before. Companies are losing money, and business opportunities are definitely far fewer than a few months ago. Many people have lost their jobs,” he said.
“As a result, society’s ability to engage in charity is not the same as it was. Perhaps people like us can tolerate the situation for a year or more, but I know the case might be different for others. If this is how it is for financially secure individuals, imagine how hard life will be for the poor,” he added.
The government announced restrictions and lockdown measures will continue till the end of Ramadan to halt the spread of the pandemic. Egypt has thus far recorded over 10,000 coronavirus cases and more than 500 fatalities.
Before the start of Ramadan, the government extended the curfew introduced to help stop the spread of the coronavirus for 30 days, making it from 9pm, instead of 8pm, until 6 in the morning. Public transport is available during the period every day of the week, and shops and malls are open until 5pm. The only exceptions are bakeries, supermarkets, and pharmacies, which are continuing to operate normally, something that is also the case for vital industries and construction work.
However, entertainment and public gatherings remain halted. People cannot pray at mosques whether for regular daily prayers or for Ramadan taraweeh prayers. Dar Al-Iftaa, the institution issuing Islamic rulings in Egypt, has also warned against holding taraweeh prayers on rooftops to avoid any potential transmission of the coronavirus. Itikaf, or staying inside mosques during the holy month, is also banned.
All this has had an impact on charities during Ramadan. Amr, 35, works as a physician in a private hospital, and unlike Mohamed, who offers financial backing to low-income people in his circle, he has been contributing to the mawaaid al-rahman (charity Iftars) in his neighbourhood.
“Some of them are organised by companies, while individuals do others. For people like myself who might not be in contact with many poorer people, it is a great opportunity to do charity work on a large scale. Thousands of people come to our mawaaid in Ramadan each year for Iftar,” Amr noted.
But the problem this year is that public gatherings are not allowed because of the potential spread of the coronavirus. And even if they were allowed, it would have been impossible to arrange a charity Iftar.
“People who break their fast at the mawaaid al-rahman usually come from working class areas. It would take them at least an hour, even if there were no traffic jams, to return home after eating. I don’t think they would be able to do that before the curfew starts. Although the streets of Cairo are traditionally empty during Iftar, the congestion returns a couple of hours later. It is almost impossible to do charity Iftars this year as a result,” he said.
The only thing Amr was able to do instead was to buy Ramadan boxes for the workers he knows in the hospital he works for and in the residential building he lives in. Supermarkets and retail stores make boxes that include basic necessities such as rice, cooking oil, dried dates, tomato paste, pasta, sugar, tea and salt, and they can be bought online. Prices range from LE50 to LE80. The more items are included, the higher the price of the box.
“This is much less than what I usually do, as with the boxes you end up giving food to 20 or 30 people. Much larger numbers come to a charity table during the 33-day period. But this is the maximum contribution you can make this year in Ramadan,” Amr said.
PLANS: Earlier last month, the government launched a plan to give LE500 to temporary workers for three months, a measure that aims to back those who have lost their jobs because of the negative economic impacts of the coronavirus.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi also called on the private sector to pay salaries in full and to give paid leave to employees, as well as to abide by the measures of social-distancing and limiting the number of people who go to workplaces. He allocated LE100 billion to address the effects of the coronavirus, and LE88 million of this went to the Ministry of Health.
“During a two-week registration period for irregular workers, the ministry’s database received two million applications. After examining them, nearly 1.5 million workers were considered eligible for receiving the monthly aid, and they will start cashing it as of Monday,” said Minister of Manpower Mohamed Saafan on 12 April. He said that the database could then be used in future for other aid purposes.
But this has not necessarily helped private individuals who want to help. Walid, 44, the owner of a medium-sized tourism company, said that he could not give as much in charity in Ramadan as he used to do in the past. “The tourism industry has lost billions since the coronavirus crisis began. All the agreements I finalised over recent months have stopped, and I still have financial commitments to meet that I not know how I am going to manage. I also have fixed costs such as salaries and operations that I pay every month,” he said.
Egypt’s Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled El-Enany announced in March that the tourism sector was losing $2 billion each month because the spread of the coronavirus had led to the halting of flights. In 2019, the sector earned $12 billion, and the collapse this year indicates an international crisis. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) expects that a 30 per cent decrease in touristic arrivals at least will occur because of the new virus.
“It doesn’t seem that things will get better soon. There is still no drug or vaccine for the coronavirus, and the longer this crisis continues, the more losses we will face. This is the ugly truth that people working in the industry continue to face every day,” Walid said.
He said he was seriously considering laying off employees, although he knows that the cost of hiring new ones in the future could be high. “If I did so, I would have to allocate financial resources for hiring new people as soon as the crisis ends. This also means money. It is all very difficult to handle, and in fact I do not know what to do,” he said.
As a result, Walid had to make the tough decision not to give to charity as he would normally do during Ramadan. In previous years, he counted on giving Ramadan boxes to poor people and donations to charity organisations.
“My grandfather, my father, and I have maintained this tradition throughout our lives. I cannot believe that we have reached this point. But as a business owner, when you feel you are getting closer to bankruptcy, you have to make difficult decisions. This year, some of them have been related to the poor,” he said.
After the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate Eid Al-Fitr, a religious event marking the end of the fasting month. Walid’s family has always made charity preparations during that period as well, but he will likely have to put things on hold this year.
All the money he has will be devoted to paying bills and buying basic necessities and keeping his business alive. Further expenses, including charitable ones, will have to be postponed until things get back to normal. He is one of tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of Egyptians who will apparently have to take steps in this direction.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly