Each year during the month of Ramadan, millions of practicing Muslims around the world fast from dawn until sunset, like generations of Muslims have done for over a thousand years.
This year, with Ramadan set to start on Friday, Muslims around the world face a Ramadan defined by the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns and precautionary measures implemented to stem the tide.
For Egyptian Muslims, fears have mounted that certain health risks may be augmented when it comes to fasting and abstaining from drinking and eating for prolonged hours of the day, as well as the risks posed by mass prayers and crowds.
In Egypt, a debate erupted in media outlets as well as on social media platforms after a few scholars advocated not to fast this year.
One of the most repeated voices was that of Saad El-Din El-Hilaly, professor of jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, who said that Muslims who had fears about fasting did not have to fast, even if these fears were not supported by any physical ailments.
Nevertheless, not only did an Egyptian Azhar committee state on 7 April that Muslims are to fast in Ramadan despite the current pandemic, the regional office of WHO also spoke in its favour.
“There is absolutely no study so far that proves that fasting is related to harms in immunity when it comes to people who don’t suffer from chronic diseases, nor that it might increase cases of the coronavirus,” Dr John Jabbour, WHO representative in Egypt, told several media outlets.
The Egypt WHO office said that, nevertheless, it is advised that people abide by guidelines issued by WHO for Muslims around the world to practice Ramadan safely in the context of the coronavirus, which are summarised below.
Ramadan safety in a nutshell
It is highly advised to cancel and avoid social and religious gatherings. Virtual alternative platforms are advised. If not cancelled, social distancing and other measures of mitigating the risks of coronavirus must be implemented.
A strong communication strategy should be implemented to explain to people any measures taken and clear instructions should be given for everyone to comprehend.
Social distancing and high risk groups
The guidelines on social distancing given by WHO include strictly maintaining a distance of at least 1 metre between people at all times, as well as using greetings that avoid physical contact, such as waving, nodding, or placing the hand over the heart.
People with underlying chronic health issues such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer, are advised not to attend gatherings due to the augmented risks they pose.
It is worth mentioning that the Ministry of Islamic Endowments saod that during the global coronavirus crisis, Egypt will ban any gatherings and public iftars, or fast-breaking meals, as well as collective social activities,. The ban will also apply to the seclusion of Itikaf, when Muslims spend the last 10 days of the month in mosques to pray and meditate.
Nevertheless, the guidelines mentioned by the WHO are directed to the broader spectrum that includes segments in other counties who have the option of choosing more relaxed regulations in regards to prayer assembly.
The guide lines state that If gatherings for prayer are a must, it is advised that the event is held outdoor or in a venue with adequate ventilation and air flow.
The event should be shortened as much as possible to limit potential exposure, with the fewest possible attendees.
Abiding by physical distancing among attendees, both when seated and standing including when praying, performing wudu (ritual ablution), as well as in areas dedicated to shoe storage is a must.
It is also advised to implement measures to facilitate contact tracing in the event that an ill person is identified among the attendees of the event.
Additional guidelines related to cleanliness and hygiene include routine cleaning of venues where people gather before and after each event, using detergents and disinfectants, and frequently cleaning often-touched objects such as doorknobs, light switches, and stair railings with detergents and disinfectant.
Stay healthy and vigilant
WHO states that healthy people should be able to fast during this Ramadan as in previous years, while COVID-19 patients may consider religious licenses regarding breaking the fast in consultation with their doctors, as they would do with any other disease.
It is always recommended that people maintain healthy habits, one of which is performing sport and physical activity on a regular basis. And while doing that outdoors is restricted in many parts of the world, indoor physical movement and online physical activity classes are encouraged.
As for healthy nutrition, it is -- as always -- advised that it is vital during the month of Ramadan to eat a variety of fresh and unprocessed foods every day and drink plenty of water.
On top of the list of lethal habits comes smoking. WHO guidelines stress that tobacco use is ill-advised under any circumstances, especially during Ramadan and the COVID-19 pandemic. Frequent smokers may already have lung disease, or reduced lung capacity, which greatly increases the risk from COVID-19.
When smoking cigarettes, the fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) touch the lips, which increases the likelihood of the virus entering the respiratory system.
When waterpipes (shisha) are used, it is likely that mouth pieces and hoses are shared, which also facilitates transmission of the virus.
Goodwill and good health go hand-in-hand
The guidelines pay attention to the habitual increase in certain charity activities that spike in Ramadan. It is advised that while distributing money (which is done physically in many parts of the Muslim world) during Ramadan, physical distancing measures must be considered as well as avoiding the crowded gathering associated with iftar banquets.
Alternatively it is advised to consider using individual pre-packaged boxes/servings of food. Physical distancing throughout the whole cycle (collecting, packaging, storing and distribution) should be adhered to.