Ramadan in the middle of a pandemic

“O you, who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that possibly you would be pious,” [Al Baqarah 2: 183]

By Dr Haroon Rashid

The world is currently in the midst of a global pandemic of novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). It was first detected in early December 2019 in Wuhan, China, and spread worldwide thereafter. Till date, more than 2.3 million individuals have been affected worldwide and causing nearly 1.6 lakh deaths. As on 19th April, 2020, in India, COVID-19 has affected around 16 thousand individuals (341 in J&K) and 530 deaths (05 in J&K). The novel coronavirus has taken just a few months to sweep the globe. How many will die, how societies will change — those questions are impossible to fathom as the disease rages.

Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the five core pillars of Islam and is observed annually by majority of the 1.9 billion Muslims worldwide. Throughout this holy month, Muslims fast and abstain from food, liquids, and immoral acts between dawn and dusk to achieve taqwa (self-restraint), and for seeking redemption. This year, Ramadan falls between late April and late May, even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages. Therefore, it is safe to assume, Ramadan will be immensely challenging and different this year. For one, there will be suspension of mosque congregations (including tarawih, itikaf), and we have to perform daily prayers at home. There will be no large social and religious gatherings at Iftar (fast-breaking meals) time either, when we usually unite to break our fast together, after sunset.

COVID-19 is kind of a great storm, difficult to track and control. The virus spreads through respiratory droplets and contact with contaminated surfaces. It can be transmitted by pre-symptomatic people and is severe enough to kill a significant fraction of those who have it. It is spreading rapidly, and we are relying solely on quarantine, isolation, and infection-control measures to prevent disease spread. Physical distancing measures play a vital role in stopping or slowing down the spread of disease. In context of Ramadan, these measures include the closing of mosques, restrictions on movement, and ban on the social and religious gatherings.

Ahead of Ramadan, World Health Organization (WHO) issued interim guidelines for religious practices during the month of Ramadan in the context of the COVID-19.

  1. Healthy people should be able to fast during the holy month. However, COVID-19 patients can break the fast in consultation with doctors.
  2. Cancellation of any social and religious gathering. Measures to limit crowds and the movement of individuals in vulnerable areas should be maximized
  3. Practice physical distancing by strictly maintaining a distance of at least 1 metre (3 feet) between people at all times and avoid gathering in places associated with Ramadan activities, such as entertainment venues, markets, and shops. Physical distancing should be following while distributing ‘Zakat’ during Ramadan. Avoid the crowded gathering associated with Iftar banquets; consider using individual pre-packaged boxes of food.
  4. While we must practice social and physical distancing, it does not have to lead to social isolation. We must stay connected.
  5. Proper nutrition and hydration are vital. People should eat a variety of fresh and unprocessed foods every day and drink plenty of water during the Iftar and Suhoor time.
  6. Tobacco and cigarette smoking are ill-advised under any circumstances, especially during Ramadan and the COVID-19 pandemic.
  7. Regular and thorough hand-washing and practice good respiratory hygiene.
  8. Urge people who are feeling unwell or have any symptoms of COVID-19 to avoid attending events.
  9. Urge older people and anyone with pre-existing medical conditions (such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer) not to attend gatherings, as they are considered vulnerable to severe disease and death from COVID-19.
  10. If Ramadan gatherings are allowed to proceed, measures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission should be implemented.
    • Perform wudu (ritual ablutions) before prayers, helps to maintain healthy hygiene.
    • Encourage the use of personal prayer rugs to place over carpets.
    • Ensure that hand washing facilities at the entrance to and inside mosques.
    • Frequently clean worship spaces, sites, and buildings. In mosques, keep the premises and wudu facilities clean, and maintain general hygiene and sanitation
    • Regulate the number and flow of people entering, attending, and departing from worship spaces.
    • Shorten the length of the event as much as possible to limit potential exposure.
    • Avoid physical contact while greeting people, such as waving, nodding, or placing the hand over the heart. Don’t shake hands.
  11. Follow the advice of the local health authorities including any restrictions put in place on travel, movement and gatherings.

The fear of getting sick is not an excuse for a Muslim to not fast. However, if fasting can risk lives of people, or harm their health, or if the health condition of a coronavirus-infected patient is critical and is advised by his doctor not to fast because he/or she needs to keep drinking water and taking medicine, it is permissible for them not to fast. Religious leaders and religious organizations can play a major role in saving lives and reducing illness during this pandemic by sharing evidence-based information about COVID19, avoiding large group gatherings and faith-related activities, addressing stigma, violence, and the incitement of hate and counter and address misinformation.

Author is Ph.D(Neuropharmacology) AIIMS, New Delhi. Can be contacted at [email protected]

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