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Ramadan in times of Covid-19

Maya De Vries Kedem7 April 2021

BY MAYA DE VRIES AND LAILA ABED RABHO

The month of Ramadan is coming soon, and again, this holiday will be different in several places around the world. As the World Health Organization has advised this week on their Facebook page, while celebrating, people should still take care and keep social distancing, as COVID-19 is still with us.

Fig 1: World Health Organization Facebook page post, advising people celebrating religious holidays to maintain social distancing.

Muslim populations around the world are waiting for the month of Ramadan, and although it is a long month, it is also an opportunity to get some light in the shade: having family and guests around during this month is one of the positive things during this holiday. Time usually goes by quickly and some say time flies even though they are spending a long number of days fasting. Before they know it, preparations for Eid al-Fitr (the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast) will start. As the Messenger of God said: There are two occasions of joy for a fasting person: one when he breaks his fast, and the other, the joy of Eid.

Ramadan is a month of fasting: during this month, people refrain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset. Although fasting is one of the pillars of Islam, Ramadan is not just about fasting: a person must avoid everything that God has forbidden in this period and only adhere to acts of worship.

Fasting is not just done for the sake of depriving oneself of food and drink, rather, fasting is considered to have many benefits: it tames the soul and gives the body rest and better equips the bodily organs responsible for food and drink, as well as giving people patience during times of calamities and making individuals better appreciate how people who live in food poverty may spend most of their days (not just during Ramadan). Such solidarity is significant nowadays, as following the COVID-19 crisis, the number of people who are struggling to make a living has only gone up.

In 2020, before the blessed month of Ramadan, the Coronavirus terrified the whole world, young and old. But as a virus, it was most threatening to the elderly population as it changed their lives almost completely around the world and in our fieldsite of Dar al-Hawa. It was no longer possible to hold weddings or any sort of gatherings of more than ten people in an enclosed space, and restrictions were imposed on everyone. Mosques closed their doors to the worshippers on most days, limiting services to a very small number of worshippers (not more than 10) who were allowed to attend on Fridays.

Last year, Dar al-Hawa was highly quiet during Ramadan, as families did not host any events or guests in their homes and barely met with other people. More so, the habit of going out to restaurants during the evening disappeared as places were shut down. The general feeling in Dar al-Hawa was that of despair. However, soon, an effective solution was found: families started to send food boxes and gifts to one another instead of visiting each other’s homes – boxes were also given to the poor.

During Ramadan last year, people were even prohibited from praying in the al-Aqsa mosque (a holy site). Because it was anticipated that during Ramadan, many worshippers would travel there from several regions (including Jerusalem and the areas of the Palestinian Authority in the previous year), everyone was prohibited from performing the obligatory prayer and Taraweeh prayer in the Al Aqsa. Jerusalem and Al Aqsa were sad and devoid of worshipers.

In 2021, the pandemic is still spreading across the world, but in Israel, the number of infected people has been in decline following a major vaccination operation, which has taken place over the past four months. At first, the population of East Jerusalem (including Dar al-Hawa) were sceptical of the vaccine and did not want to take it due to the abundance of fake news circulating online (see our latest blog post for more). However, vaccine uptake among the Palestinian population of Jerusalem has been on the increase, potentially because people have witnessed the lack of serious side-effects after the vaccine but also because entrance to many places is now forbidden if one does not have their green pass (this is a pass confirming that the person in question has had both doses of the vaccine). In Dar al-Hawa, 91% of the population has now been vaccinated! For now, only those who are 16 or above have been vaccinated, but this high percentage means that Ramadan, this year, as opposed to last year, and as opposed to other places in the world, can be celebrated almost as normal – in people’s houses, on the streets, and in restaurants – and people are really excited about it. The only place that is still limiting the numbers of attendees are the mosques – there is a limit on the number of people who can be inside and one must wear a mask while praying, but they are open to prayer and people can practice their worship and fulfil the holiness of Ramadan.

For this Ramadan, Islamic scholars and jurists issued Fatwas to allow people to pray inside the mosques for their relatives who cannot enter for various reasons: people who might have chronic diseases which means they are at greater risk of being infected and developing a severe form of the disease, people who have had an organ transplant, and those who have not been vaccinated yet. Their relatives’ prayers inside the mosque will be considered equal to them attending mosque themselves.

In Dar al-Hawa, people are impatient and eager to perform their Ramadan obligations the same way they would have done before Covid-19, by going to mosques and being gathered with their family and relatives to collectively eat breakfast (the Iftar).

People have already started preparing for Ramadan by decorating their homes and streets. A favourite dessert here is Ma’amuls – stuffed cookies with walnuts or cheese, and in some of the houses, people are already preparing the special dough for these.

Decorated house in al-Quds (1)

Decorated house in al-Quds (2)

In Dar al-Hawa, people are hoping that the current situation will continue to improve in order for restrictions to be lifted and celebrations to take place comfortably and with some reassurance. We are hoping that vaccine uptake will continue to stay high so that cases continue to go down during the days before people start gathering, so that religious and other daily duties can be undertaken freely and without restrictions. Until then, everyone is trying to follow the regulations set out by the Ministry of Health relating to masks and quarantine to slow down the transmission of the virus, while still celebrating Ramadan together.

Fake News and Covid-19 in the fieldsite of al-Quds

Maya De Vries Kedem25 January 2021

Laila Abed Rabho & Maya de Vries

While Israel is now in the middle of a third full lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there are many who still question if the pandemic is real, or whether it is a worldwide conspiracy run by governments. Israel’s population is divided into several sectors: Religious Jews, Secular Jews, Palestinians, and other minorities. Those who are still indifferent about the Covid-19 pandemic and the actual existence of this virus are more likely to be found among the Arab and Orthodox Jewish communities. The latter is a rather ‘disconnected’ community when it comes to the ‘information society’ (Castells, 2003), with the use of the Internet and smartphones not being fully approved by their leading authorities – Rabbis (for more information about Internet use in the Ultra-Orthodox society see this report). The Arab community in Israel, as well as in al-Quds, which is under Israeli control, is not limited in terms of using the Internet or smartphones, however, it does suffer from a ‘digital divide’ due to lower rates of ownership of PCs, poor knowledge of Hebrew, especially among older women and al-Quds residents, a lack of trust in the Israeli authorities and intensive use of social media through which they receive news and other information (see the full report here in Hebrew). Obtaining news primarily through social media can be problematic since plenty of the ‘news’ is actually ‘fake news’. It is also important to mention here the fact that a lot of official information about the virus is first distributed in Hebrew, and only afterwards translated into Arabic, which leaves a gap that enables ‘fake news’ to be distributed in Arabic easily and rapidly.

In the past month, Israel, in a very impressive operation, started to vaccinate everyone over 60, followed by other age groups over 40. These last few weeks have been like a race between the pace of infection and the rate of vaccination. One of the reasons Israel has started so early is that the vaccination operation exploits the specific way in which the healthcare system has been constructed  Local clinics are managing the entire process under the supervision of the Ministry of Health. The fact that these local health clinics, which are divided into four state-mandated health service organisations (Clalit, Macabi, Leumit and Mehudedt) have medical records and personal information dating back thirty years (on average) on each patient gives Israel an advantage, as it will be able to provide the drug companies (Pfizer, Moderna and others) with detailed medical information about side effects such as allergies and other responses observed in those who received the vaccine. This is viewed by the companies as vital data that can be used for further research, but we will leave this to another discussion about the value of medical data and the issue of privacy.

The number of people who received the vaccine in al-Quds as of the 7th of January can be seen in the table below (though it is important to note that the data keeps being updated as the vaccination operation continues, and other age groups are starting to receive it now).

Figure 1. Data taken from Ynet (January 7th, 2021).

This information has not been broken down into the different ethnic groups that composed the population of Al-Quds. Although we looked for specific information about vaccination rates among Palestinians in Al-Quds, this was difficult to find.  We did receive some data through private email correspondence with the manager of the Clalit clinic in Dar al-Hawa, who said that that a quarter of the Palestinians over 60 had received the vaccine al-Quds. However, when comparing this rate to the rate of vaccination seen among the secular Jewish society in the city, this is a relatively low number. The general fear of the new vaccine is understandable. However, there is also the possibility that the fear is being combined with rumours based on ‘fake news’ items currently circulated on social media and WhatsApp groups, which can potentially put people in physical danger due to non-vaccination (see also Haaretz’s article Fake News during Covid-19 in al-Quds).

In Dar al-Hawa and al-Quds more generally, rumours and fake news about the virus and the vaccine have crossed gender, race, and religious differences.

Currently, it can be said that a significant number of people still do not follow the instructions given by the Ministry of Health and choose not to wear a face mask and to keep social distancing, while some are still holding wedding parties with many guests, though in private yards, since most halls are closed. There are also many cases of people still visiting bereaved families in person to give their condolences, although, in the first lockdown, this had stopped almost completely. Low levels of compliance with safety measures may have led to a significant increase in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Israel as well as in Al-Quds.

Some of these rumours, which circulate on Facebook and WhatsApp, continue to this very day and a serious effort is needed in order to weaken them. Among these rumours, there are a few narratives that keep getting circulated:

  1. One narrative says that this artificial virus was created by China in order to eliminate Muslims in cooperation with other major countries.
  2. Another says that the virus was created in order to get rid of the elderly in order to alleviate the global population crisis.
  3. There is also a rumour that says that this virus is part of a greater conspiracy led by the World Health Organization (WHO) in order to market and sell medicines.

These narratives have been circulated over Facebook and WhatsApp in the past few months and still today, despite the death toll and the increasing number of hospitalised people, they clearly have taken hold in parts of al-Quds. One of the ways both the military and the Palestinian social and political leaders in al-Quds have tried to fight these problematic rumours has been through circulating postings intended that oppose these positions through social media channels, intended to refute these rumours.  Two Facebook pages served as the main platforms for distributing reliable information about Covid-19. One is the Arabic-language official Facebook page of the Jerusalem municipality, and there is also a new Facebook page that was established at the beginning of the crisis (if less active at present), created by prominent Palestinian individuals and organisations working in al-Quds under the name The coalition of Jerusalem.

These Facebook pages are quite popular in terms of their number of followers, but when judged in terms of success, their impact seems limited as evident in the degree to which people still celebrate weddings and may not wear masks.

Figure 2 Example of a post from the Jerusalem municipality’s Arabic-language Facebook page, auto-google-translated here.

While rumours about the Covid-19 continued to circulate online, there are now additional fake messages about the expected vaccine which have also started to spread around. The message below repeats the often-heard point that the vaccine includes a chip that assists global superpowers in tracking individuals around the world (including obtaining their bank account details and giving them the ability to kill an individual).

Figure 3: Inaccurate message about the vaccine on the FATA Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Fatabyyano/)

In Dar Al-Hawa (our fieldsite), it is not easy to convince local residents to take the vaccine – and the rumours around it are not helping. In the current political situation of constant contestation in al-Quds, Covid-19 reveals how existing socio-economic gaps have a direct impact on the digital divide, itself related to infrastructure and education as well as poor access to the information originally published in Hebrew. The space created in these divides is quickly occupied by alternative and highly problematic rumours, which, if believed, can prove to be a matter of life and death. More than that, the circulation of false news items which then take the place of real news deepens the digital divide, increasing the divergence between hegemonic groups and non-hegemonic groups and extending the latter’s distance from mainstream and official information.