One of the most important events for Muslims is undoubtedly the holy month of Ramadan, traditionally celebrated as the ninth month of the lunar calendar, which this year encountered with the COVID-19 outbreak. While a third of the world population is quarantined, and many governments imposed strict lockdown controls, Muslims are facing a great challenge this Ramadan, while economies are experiencing fluctuations amid the clash between the holy month and COVID-19 pandemic.
The first thing associated with Ramadan is daylight fasting: no eating or drinking is allowed from dawn till dusk. However, Ramadan is not merely about food intake restriction — it is a very communal set of events, involving big gatherings for iftar (break of the fast once the sun is down), inviting friends and family for dinners, increased charity and donation activity, sharing food with those in need, and visits to the mosque. None of the listed seems possible in the age of social distancing, but different Muslim-majority countries (as well as Muslim-minority ones) are dealing with the spread of the virus each in their way in regards to the holy month.
First and foremost, in Muslim-majority countries, where most of the population is fasting during Ramadan, economies are experiencing fluctuations in various sectors. As Ramadan begins, the productivity and GDP of Muslim states tend to diminish, since governments shorten the working hours and limit daylight activities. Working hours cuts resulted in a $2.4bn loss in national GDP for Saudi Arabia in 2019, and $1.67bn loss for UAE. Nevertheless, while people are less productive, leisure and hospitality sectors experience upsurge as well as Islam-related commerce, as those practicing the fast tend to conduct festive dinners and donate more than usual.
Also, due to Ramadan shifting seasonality as it is based on the lunar calendar, it tends to negatively affect seasonal products, which are in demand only in particular months. For instance, as beer sales typically rise in the summer months, Ramadan overlapping with the hotter time of the year may disrupt the market of cold beverages. Thus, Ramadan’s economic impact varies as it shifts slightly every year.
Crime rates, though expected to fall during Ramadan, which is usually accompanied by overall spiritual mood, have a mixed relationship with the holy month. While some countries report a significant fall in crime rates, others experience a slight rise, which authorities explain with the fact that Muslims leave their homes empty in the evenings to attend congregational prayers at mosques, so cases of thefts and beggary grow.
At the same time, in Muslim-majority states, the self-reported happiness of the population is significantly higher during and after Ramadan, since it is a spiritual celebration and communal festive, mental health, family connections, satisfaction with life, and subjective well-being exhibit positive change. Likewise, charity activities and donations, including organ donation, are significantly higher in the month of Ramadan.
Thus, many economic consequences of Ramadan might cancel each other out, which makes it hard to estimate its long-term economic impact. Because of Ramadan seasonality, its effects are also hard to predict, yet this year it might be harder than ever. In 2020 not only is Ramadan fluctuating the economies but so is, to a much larger extent, the COVID-19 pandemic. Though many Muslim-majority states are struggling to curb the virus outbreak, some of them relaxed lockdown measures once Ramadan started. Here is how different Muslim-majority countries are dealing with coronavirus after the beginning of the holy month.
The most important Islamic holy sites are closed this year, though traditionally during Ramadan they attract millions of worshippers all over the world: Mecca, Medina, and Al-Aqsa Mosques are shut down, while local religious authorities encouraged people to pray at home and practice social distancing.
On the other side, the government of Pakistan was criticized for relaxing the measures during Ramadan, while more than 20 thousand cases were found in the country by the beginning of May, with the peak of daily cases occurring after the beginning of the holy month. The mosques were not shut down, and congregational prayers are now imposing a considerable threat to public health, as Pakistani doctors urge. Though the government encouraged people to stick to social distancing rules when attending mosques, only a quarter of namazis will be able to pray at mosques. The next question is, what is left for the remaining majority of those fasting during Ramadan? Doctors are warning this ease during Ramadan will serve as a disaster for Pakistan’s healthcare system.
At the same time, Central Asian countries, where about 70 to 90 percent of the population identify as Muslims, also celebrate Ramadan annually, though not to a large extent as, for example, Middle Eastern countries. The Central Asian region was one of the last to report COVID-19 infections. However, by the beginning of May, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan relaxed the measures due to the diminishing number of cases, which coincides with the beginning of Ramadan month (though visiting mosques is still prohibited). However, social distancing is not popular among the majority of the population, so those practicing fastings continue gathering for iftar and celebrating the holy month together. Turkmenistan is still one of the only countries in the world where no cases of COVID-19 were reported, so Ramadan is celebrated as usual as no lockdown or restrictive measures were introduced.
UAE was also one of the countries to relax isolation measures with the beginning of Ramadan, claiming the virus to be eased by that time. Some malls and stores reopened with a limited capacity of visitors, and people are encouraged to follow social distancing rules. However, statistics show that the virus is amplifying, and the curve has not flattened yet. Simultaneously, in Aceh province in Indonesia, congregational prayers still visit mosques, and gatherings for iftar are not prohibited. This decision worked contrary to central government measures and was heavily criticized by the Indonesian Doctors Association, claiming this “lack of restrictions” imposes the risk of a virus outbreak in the province.
As food consumption increases during Ramadan, experts are afraid of panic buying and empty shelves amid the lockdown. Besides, the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to leave more than 200 million people unemployed and exacerbate poverty and social inequalities, which affects decision-making on whether to fast or not to fast for vulnerable groups of society. Last but not least, many questioned the possible risks of fasting amid coronavirus pandemic, especially those already infected or belonging to risk groups.
Though some criticize Muslim-majority governments for relaxing the measures since the beginning of Ramadan, other countries have never introduced strict measures, for example, Sweden or The Netherlands. Muslim-majority countries are yet to face a significant challenge: Eid-al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, a massive celebration marking the end of the holy month, involving big parties and grand festivities — one of the most crucial time of Ramadan. It is unclear yet whether governments will relax the measures and let people celebrate Eid as usual. It has been less than two weeks since the holy month started, so it is hard to make any predictions on its relationship with COVID-19. Still, it is obvious that this year’s overlap between the corona crisis and Ramadan will bring mixed economic consequences.