Unprecedented virus lockdown as Muslims mark Ramadhan

JAKARTA (AFP) – Muslims in several parts of the world began marking Ramadhan under coronavirus lockdown on Friday with unprecedented bans on family gatherings and mass prayers, while a pushback in some countries has sparked fears of a surge in infections.

This year, the holy daytime fasting month will be a sombre affair for many across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Widespread rules have been imposed banning praying in mosques or meeting relatives and friends for large iftar meals at dusk – a centrepiece of the month-long fast.

In Dhaka, authorities shuttered a centuries-old market that sells snacks and traditional delicacies for Ramadhan.

“This is the first time in some 400 years that the… market won’t sell iftar items,” said local Police Chief Moudut Howlader.

Muslim workers offer prayers as they stand under vermicelli arranged to dry for making traditional sweet dishes popular during Ramadhan, amid a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 at a factory in Allahabad, India. PHOTOS: AFP
Indonesians purchase food for breaking fast during the first day of Ramadhan in Jakarta

The restrictions have put a damper on spirits in Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim majority nation, where national religious organisations have called on the faithful to stay at home.

“This Ramadhan is very different – it’s just not festive,” said Indonesian housewife Fitria Famela.

“I’m disappointed that I can’t go to the mosque, but what can we do? The world is different now.”

However, some religious leaders in Asia – home to nearly a billion of the world’s Muslims – have waved off fears about the spread of COVID-19.

In Bangladesh, a fundamentalist group criticised government moves to restrict access to more than 300,000 mosques nationwide.

The top Islamic organisation in Indonesia’s conservative Aceh province publicly bucked a national order to stay at home.

Several thousand worshippers attended evening prayers on Thursday at the biggest mosque in the region’s capital Banda Aceh, though crowds were smaller than usual.

“I’m not worried because I’m wearing a face mask and keeping my distance,” said Cut Fitrah Riskiah, one of those taking part.

The threat of large religious gatherings has been highlighted in recent weeks by waves of infections in Asia linked to separate, massive congregations in Malaysia, Pakistan and India.

Regional COVID-19 death tolls have been lower than in Europe and the United States (US) but are rising steadily, sparking fears the virus may overwhelm often underfunded healthcare systems.

And the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for a stop to some Ramadhan activities to limit exposure.

Mohamad Shukri Mohamad, the top cleric in the Malaysian state of Kelantan, planned to skip public prayers and family meals – even if it meant not seeing his six children and 18 grandchildren.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve been unable to go to the mosque,” he told AFP.

“But we must accept it and obey the rules of social distancing to protect our lives.”

Muslim-majority Malaysia has extended a strict lockdown until mid-May with mosques, schools and most businesses closed – and police checkpoints set up to catch rulebreakers.

Even popular Ramadhan bazaars, where Muslims buy local delicacies before breaking their fast, have been banned.

Instead, Malaysians can only order from so-called “e-bazaars”, where people order goods online and have them delivered to their homes.

Some even considered skipping the daytime fast over fears it could weaken their immune system.

“But it would be sinful to miss it because fasting is mandatory,” said Indonesian bank employee Amalia Nur Istigfarin.

“So I’ll try other things to boost my immune system like exercise and taking vitamin C,” she added.

Fears of a spike in coronavirus cases when millions travel to hometowns and ancestral villages at the end of Ramadhan has forced Indonesia – a country of some 260 million – to issue a ban on the annual exodus. The government has also announced a clampdown on all air and sea travel across the 17,000-island archipelago.

Jakarta resident Erik Febrian said he was relying on a computer to allow him to keep in touch with his out-of-town parents until he can see them in person at the end of Ramadhan.

“Thanks to technology I can video-call my parents every day during Ramadhan,” he said. “And keep an eye on their health.”