Surging coronavirus cases in many parts of the world have overshadowed the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with festivities curtailed by contagion fears.
Europe, the worst-hit continent, passed the threshold of one million COVID-19 deaths, while South Asian countries battle a spiraling disease outbreak that has crippled the global economy.
Vaccination programs are giving hope to people enduring restrictions well into a second year. India – which is experiencing a record surge in cases – was boosted as it authorized Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 drug.
According to John Hopkins University data, the total number of virus deaths is approaching three million, as the World Health Organization warned infections are rising exponentially despite efforts aimed at stopping them.
From Indonesia to Egypt, many Muslims worldwide 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 – Southeast Asia’s most prominent – welcomed congregants for the first time on Monday night after more than a year of closure because of the pandemic.
Mohamad Fathi, a resident of the Indonesian capital, told AFP this year’s Ramadan was happier than in 2020 when people were banned from participating 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.”
The government of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation has imposed limits, with mosques only able to host congregants at a maximum of 50 percent 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 specific zones where virus cases are spiking.
“This is like happiness in the middle of restrictions,” Mr. Fathi added. “This year’s Ramadan is significant for me. After last year, we did not feel the joy of Ramadan at all.”
India gets Sputnik
Home to Islam’s holiest shrines, Saudi Arabia announced that the sacred fasting month would start on Tuesday. However, authorities said only people immunized 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 on Wednesday after rival moon-sighting committees agree to a nationally applied start of “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 only allow prayers in open courtyards and strictly enforce social distancing.
In neighboring India – home to 1.3 billion people – health officials have been battling a massive 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, more than 100,000 infections have been recorded.
Experts have warned that huge, mostly maskless crowds at political rallies and religious festivals have fuelled India’s caseload. 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. 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,” she said.
“This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic when we have proven control measures.”