This weekend, millions of Muslims around the world have welcomed the beginning of Ramadan. But this year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, most countries have shut their places of worship during the holy month, encouraging believers to practice their religion at home instead. The Khana Ka’ba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which attracts millions of pilgrims every year, has remained closed for over a month – the first time in living memory. In other Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia and the UAE, imams have been leading tarawih prayers online for people to livestream and follow. In Pakistan, however, the mosques are to remain open. The controversial decision was taken after Prime Minister Imran Khan and his team met with the religious ulema who proposed their recommendations.
Prior to this outcome many clerics had defied the standard operating procedures and policies laid out by the government and medical establishment during the pandemic. In turn, these actions reveal the influence the religious factions and clergy have on government decisions, as the government chose not to put up a fight during Ramadan. The biggest fear for Pakistan during the pandemic lies in the tarawih congregations after breaking the fast, where large groups gather to meet and pray and where the virus could potentially spread the fastest.
There has been a 20-point guideline issued by the government about how people should conduct themselves at the mosques, which has been accepted by the clergy. Evidence since the lockdown began, however, has shown that people are not adhering to social distancing and the safeguards placed around the virus; therefore, the guidelines might be even harder to enforce in the many thousands of mosques scattered around the country. There have been numerous videos circulating showing members from all classes of society packed in grocery stores and food markets, with a minority adhering to the coronavirus safeguards. In a country with over 200 million citizens and a lack of adequate medical resources, the opening of mosques can be detrimental for the nation.
Currently, Pakistan has over 13,000 coronavirus cases, with 281 deaths. Experts warn that the country’s low testing rates may be concealing the true number of infections. If the mosques remain open, the already-fragile healthcare system may be overwhelmed with new cases. Most hospitals have limited resources, and there have been large protests by healthcare workers regarding the lack of personal protective equipment as increasing numbers of health professionals are contracting the virus.
In an attempt to protect the elderly and sick, the government has banned them from going to mosques. Further precautionary measures for the public include maintaining a 6-ft distance, mandatory face masks, discouraging discussions post-tarawih, and forbidding the serving of meals to break the fast. The federal government has seemed to be rather late and confused over measures aimed at social distancing, and indeed there is little consistency between the national and regional governments on how to stop the spread the virus. The ever-imposing Pakistani military has opted for a strict lockdown like those seen in other Muslim-majority countries, and the disconnect between all institutions is evident. If the nation plans to carry on without collectively imposing strict measures, most families facing fatalities will deem any resulting action a little too late, as the media has reported few are adhering to the guidelines on the first two days of Ramadan.
If Pakistan does not take the same measures most other countries have taken regarding the closures of mosques, the majority of citizens will completely underestimate the significance of this disease. Ramadan in Pakistan is a month where most of society comes together in celebration. The norms of gathering for breaking the fast, playing cricket, and other activities unite many people during the month. If the mosques remain open, the traditions of Ramadan will continue to take place in this strange and unpredictable time, which may spell disaster for the nation in the long term.
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