Muslims start Ramadan under the shadow of the coronavirus

JAKARTA (AFP) – Surging coronavirus cases in many parts of the world overshadowed the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Tuesday (April 13), with festivities curtailed by contagion fears.

Europe, the worst-hit continent, passed the threshold of one million coronavirus deaths, while South Asian countries battle a spiralling outbreak of the disease that has crippled the global economy.

Vaccination drives are giving hope to people fed up with restrictions that are well into a second year, and India – which is experiencing a record surge in cases – was given a boost as it authorised Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 drug.

The total number of virus deaths is approaching three million, according to an AFP tally of official data, as the World Health Organisation warned that infections are rising exponentially despite efforts aimed at stopping them.

Ramadan will begin on Wednesday in Iran, the office of the Islamic republic’s supreme leader announced as the country fights the region’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak.

The holy month approaches as Iran is struggling to contain its “fourth wave” of Covid-19 infections and deaths, blamed by officials on a surge in trips made during last month’s Persian New Year holidays.

Total cases have spiked above two million with overall fatalities at almost 65,000. On Monday, the health ministry announced 23,311 new cases in 24 hours, a new daily infection record.

Health Minister Saeed Namaki on Monday urged the population to stay at home to pray. Group prayers should be held only once a day, “with a minimum number of people, in the open air, while observing maximum distance and using masks”, he said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, faced with a deep economic crisis, on Saturday announced “aid packages” for the month of Ramadan intended for “60 million people” out of Iran’s estimated 83 million.

From Indonesia to Egypt, many Muslims around the world started Ramadan after religious leaders confirmed the month of fasting would begin on Tuesday, though restrictions on worshippers varied from country to country.

‘I am so happy’

Jakarta’s newly renovated Istiqlal Mosque – South-east Asia’s largest – welcomed congregants for the first time on Monday night after more than a year of closure because of the pandemic.

Mr Mohamad Fathi, a resident of the Indonesian capital, told AFP this year’s Ramadan was happier than in 2020, when people were banned from taking part in tarawih (evening) prayers.

“Last year, it was gloomy as we were not allowed to go to the mosque for tarawih prayers,” he said.

“But this year, I am so happy finally we can go to the mosque to perform tarawih prayers at the mosque although we are under strict health protocol during the prayer.”

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The government of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation has imposed limits, with mosques able to host congregants at only a maximum of 50 per cent capacity. Worshippers are required to wear masks and bring their own prayer mats.

Several regions in Indonesia have banned gathering for fast-breaking and religious leaders have encouraged people to pray at home in certain zones where virus cases are spiking.

“This is like happiness in the middle of restrictions,” Mr Fathi added.

“This year’s Ramadan is very meaningful for me after last year, (when) we did not feel the joy of Ramadan at all.”

India gets Sputnik

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest shrines, announced that the holy fasting month was to start on Tuesday, though the authorities said only people immunised against Covid-19 will be allowed to perform the year-round umrah pilgrimage from the start of Ramadan.

In Egypt, restrictions were much less stringent than last year as people took to the streets to mark the start of the fasting month.

Pakistanis will only begin fasting Wednesday after rival moon-sighting committees agreed to a nationally applied start of what is called “Ramazan” in the country.

With the country in the grip of a third wave of the coronavirus – the deadliest so far – the government urged mosques to allow prayers only in open courtyards and to strictly enforce social distancing.

In neighbouring India – home to 1.3 billion people – health officials have been battling a huge surge in cases in recent weeks that has prompted night curfews and a clampdown on movement and activities.

The country on Monday reported more than 161,000 new cases – the seventh-consecutive day that more than 100,000 infections have been recorded.

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Experts have warned that huge, mostly maskless crowds at political rallies and religious festivals have fuelled India’s caseload, and in the Himalayan city Haridwar, maskless Hindu pilgrims have ignored social distancing pleas.

Adding Sputnik to its roster of jabs bolsters the government’s ambitious goal of vaccinating 300 million people by the end of July.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said the world was now at a “critical point” of the pandemic.

“The trajectory of this pandemic is growing… exponentially.

“This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic, when we have proven control measures.”

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