Ramadan in a pandemic: How COVID-19 is affecting Islam’s holy month in B.C.

Yusuf Serag (left) and Taabish Masood are both forced to celebrate Ramadan away from their loved ones during the pandemic. Photos submitted
People pray before breaking their fast in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, in Lahore, Pakistan. Muslims across the world are observing Ramadan when the faithful refrain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn to dusk. Photo: K.M. Chaudhry/Associated Press
A worker from Saylani Welfare Trust gives free food to women for breaking their fast on the first day of Ramadan, in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo: Anjum Naveed/Associated Press

It’s the most important month of his year, a time when he should be celebrating his faith with loved ones, yet Yusuf Serag is alone.

The Vancouver native contracted COVID-19 during a work trip in March. He returned home and self-isolated for two weeks while his wife Hafsa, who Serag just married in November, went to stay with her parents.

But when the quarantine ended, the pair decided to stay apart to ensure Hafsa, an asthmatic, stays healthy. So, like many of the 1.8 billion Muslims throughout the world, Serag is spending Ramadan on his own.

“I’m not upset, I’m not angry, I’m not disappointed,” he says. “If anything it’s a sense of loss. You lose something, but you understand why you lost it. It’s for everyone’s health and safety.”

Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, community and reflection, began this year on April 23 and runs through May 23. But mosques, like churches and synagogues, are closed throughout B.C. due to provincial restrictions on gatherings.

Religion wasn’t included in Canada’s 2016 census, but just over one million Canadians identified as Muslim in the 2011 census. Of those, 79,310 lived in B.C.

Related: Wage subsidy program to help fund faith as congregations face COVID-19 crunch

Serag, the assistant general secretary of the B.C. Muslim Association, is still beginning every day with Suhoor, the pre-dawn meal, and ending it with Iftar, the sunset breaking of the fast.

But other elements integral to Ramadan, the evenings with friends and family as well as visits to mosques for Ibadah, the act of worship, are now impossible during the pandemic.

A stay-at-home Ramadan also has a financial impact on mosques. Serag said mosques typically receive approximately 50 per cent of annual donations during the month.

“It’s difficult for a lot of mosques right now,” he says. “I don’t know how they’ll be able to handle, because a lot of them have mortgage payments, a lot of them have staff payments. How are they going to, as charities, survive this? I don’t know, but I really believe that they will. I have faith they will go forward in a positive way.”

Taabish Masood, meanwhile, is having to spend his first Ramadan in Canada.

Masood, 23, a native of Karachi, Pakistan, spent the last four years studying international relations at the University of British Columbia. During that time, Masood always made sure to fly home for Ramadan with his family.

This year, Masood’s parents were supposed to fly to Vancouver for his graduation. But they are locked down in Pakistan, which has suspended domestic and international flights. Masood also can’t return, since most international departures from Canada have been postponed until June.

“If anything, I don’t think it will be possible for myself or other international students from Pakistan who want to go back until the official borders are opened and the virus has started to decline,” says Masood. “It’s very difficult to be able to say when I’ll be able to go back home.”

He said he’s fasting with a roommate, but is missing out on being with his parents and three siblings.

“More often than not people are with their families, or go to their families for Ramadan. The festivities of it are something coupled with a prayer aspect. So not being able to do that here is definitely a bummer I would say.”

Ramadan in Masood’s home country, an Islamic republic with a population of over 207 million people according to a 2017 census, looks a lot different than it does in B.C.

The Pakistani government has allowed mosques to remain open provided they follow several physical distancing rules, despite protests from the Pakistan Medical Association. The World Health Organization says there have been 476 deaths and 20,884 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country.

Karachi, with a population of nearly 15 million, is located in the province of Sindh, which has defied the government and restricted prayer gatherings during Ramadan.

Masood, who fears a greater outbreak in Pakistan, is critical of the government for deferring to “certain sectors of society that rally for the opening of mosques.”

“They’re trying to take a middle ground where they have a partial lock down that doesn’t really benefit the masses in the same way, and secondly they have allowed for congregational prayers to happen even though there is a massive [danger],” he said.

Serag still prefers to see a silver lining in the pandemic.

The core concept of Ramadan, he says, is sacrifice. Muslims may not be able to celebrate the month as they usually would, but Serag says just as a daily fast always concludes so too will the pandemic.

“All these difficulties,” he says, “they will come to an end.”



tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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