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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.

A few thoughts on Covid surveillance technology solutions in Africa

p.awondo19 March 2021

Fig 1: Screen showing Covid-19 prevention messages in a UN office in Ouagadougou. Photo credit: Charles Somé.

A few days ago, I came across a rather unusual document. It is a compilation of different technologies put together by the European Investment Bank, entitled Covid-19: Africa’s digital solutions[1]. It was published last year, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and it sets out to identify the digital solutions currently on offer in the response to Covid in Africa. Several things strike me as I read this document: firstly, the breadth of these initiatives seems to reflect a faith in the ability of technology to respond to the health crisis. The inventory reports that about 100 digital solutions have already been ‘implemented’ or tested as of 20 June 2020. It also gives an estimate of the investment needed to implement such ‘high-impact’ solutions.

Then, there are different types of tools being promoted in different countries. There are collaborative tools such as Zoom and Skype, which have multiplied greatly, and use messaging apps such WhatsApp in professional contexts such as education, has also gone up. Traditional media, such as television, for example, has remained important due its ability to reach a great number of people during the crisis. Innovations also include tracking applications based on geographic information technology for epidemic surveillance purposes. On page 15 of the document, contact tracing apps are described as follows: “These applications, which often use geolocation data from telecommunications companies, help to identify contacts of people who have tested positive and help to locate areas where the virus is spreading.” We learn that applications have been developed and put to use in Kenya, Morocco and Rwanda among other countries. FabLab, an innovation hub in Kenya, has developed an application called Msafari, which can track public transport users.

Other digital tools have been used for mass communication and self-assessment of risks and symptoms. In Sierra Leone, for example, an existing public platform using unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) has been expanded to allow citizens to self-assess their symptoms and get alerts on developments on the COVID-19 front in the country.

The use of drones has also been experimented with to deliver pharmaceutical products or to transport PCR tests from remote areas to laboratories in big cities like Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire or Kigali in Rwanda.

But are all these innovations and techno-digital solutions going to make a difference in the medium or long term? Firstly, let us recall that there is a gap between the international presence and publicity around various technological innovations, some of which can even be award-winning, and what actually happens on the ground.  Throughout our 18 months of fieldwork in Yaoundé for the ASSA project, we noted this significant gap, which says something about the difficulty of digital applications and solutions when it comes to capturing the attention of users.

The profile of a young Snapchat user in Cameroon. The screen shows various COVID-19 messages superimposed onto a photo of the user. Photo sent to the author by research participant.

In most of these countries, although tracking applications were received with curiosity, they nevertheless worried public opinion because they raised problems of data use and privacy. Not only are they worrying, but they are not always seen as appropriate solutions for the local context. Interfaces such as the one in the picture above, where COVID-19 related messages fit into the user interface seamlessly, work well in the context because they fit into the social media landscape. Young people want to show concern about the virus and they might adopt features of a social media network that support COVID-19 messaging for a few hours occasionally during the outbreak. But for that, they also need to be reminded by other channels of support and communication that the crisis is still there. The resonance of this issue is strongly linked to the strategic orientations of African countries in terms of their politics, economic situation and sensitivity to innovations.

Another part of the current debate concerns the mistrust of not only technological solutions but also of vaccines against COVID-19. For example, medical anthropologist Alice Desclaux and a team of French researchers [2], who undertook an exploratory study among 215 people in four African countries this year, found that 2 out of 3 participants said they would refuse to be vaccinated against Covid-19. They say: “reasons for refusal included firstly fear of any side effects hidden by the pharmaceutical companies, and secondly the perception of the vaccine as a tool in a plot by Bill Gates to reduce the African population or by a coalition of the powerful (states, global institutions) to enslave populations and ensure a “new world order” using corrupt authorities in African countries (“coronabusiness”). The study also found there was a preference for endogenous solutions to control SARS-CoV2, such as traditional medicine or the protection provided by religion.” There is therefore an urgent need to study more seriously the sources of the constant doubt surrounding the surveillance of epidemics, which are reflected and accentuated at pivotal moments such as Ebola or recently, Covid-19.

The central hypothesis of this is that the operational responses of nation-states are aligned with a policy of systematically using surveillance (biometric) and the tracing of infected persons (mHealth) as the preferred institutional response to emerging epidemics. However, this response has underestimated the capacity for the circulation of alternative interpretations of epidemics favoured by an abundance of content conveyed via social networks and smartphones. The direct access of the public to this content reinforces a widespread suspicion of local governments that are seen as corrupt and that accept servile compromises with the leaders of large pharmaceutical groups to the detriment of ‘African solutions’. Therefore the solution for helping people accept technological and digital solutionism to the crisis is not just to blame them for pharmaceutical nationalism, or their non-openness to innovations, but rather like anthropology and the ASSA team’s approach, making an effort to understand and carefully analyse not only people’s perceptions of the vaccine and the Covid outbreak, but also the intertwining of the logics behind them.

References

[1] European Investment Bank (EIB): Africa’s digital solutions to tackle COVID-19, found at: https://www.eib.org/en/publications/african-digital-best-practice-to-tackle-covid-19

[2] Desclaux A, 2021, « Covid-19: En Afrique de l’Ouest, le vaccin n’est pas le nouveau « magic bullet », available at: https://vih.org/20210202/la-mondialisation-des-informations-et-la-fabrique-des-opinions-sur-les-traitements-du-covid-en-afrique/