A GREAT deal of what happens in the country in the immediate future will depend on how well or otherwise the challenges peculiar to the month of Ramazan are faced by the government and the people. The former will be tested for its ability to persevere with measures necessary to fight the coronavirus epidemic, and the latter will be required to prove their strength in preferring reason to emotion and narrow interest. And both need the will and capacity to deal effectively with the powerful pressure groups the month of fasting will throw up.
The first pressure group comprises the ulema, who took the initiative by announcing their intention to hold taraweeh prayers, Friday congregations and aitkaf (when many people devote the last 10 days or so of Ramazan to prayers and meditation in complete silence and isolation, in mosques). Some of them have expressed their readiness to accept the precautions the authorities may prescribe to prevent the spread of Covid-19.They include Maulana Fazlur Rahman.
The president talked to the hard-line ulema and they jointly worked out a set of SOPs to prevent the spread of the virus. Under this agreement the mosques will remain open to all forms of congregations, prayers will preferably be offered in open spaces and not in halls, the namazis will stand three feet away from each other and the distance between the horizontal rows will be increased to six feet. One is not sure that this plan is adequate to ward off the contagion but even if it is, implementation throughout the country could pose problems.
But why did the religious leaders strike a pre-emptive blow at the government? It is possible some scholars genuinely believe that they have a right to hold congregations in mosques regardless of the pandemic threat. Their indifference to requisites of their own safety is understandable though their lack of concern for the safety of the fellow namazi is not. They also had a valid argument that crowding in mosques didn’t pose a greater threat of spread of disease than the mobs thronging the shops. But one can only hope that they were not exploiting the government’s known predilection for religiosity to assert their autonomy in matters of religious ritual, and this in opposition to the decisions of Saudi and Egyptian authorities. It seems the last word in government’s relations with the traditionalists in religious matters is yet to be written.
For many vendors, Ramazan is the month of unbridled profiteering.
The second pressure group that could undermine the fight against Covid-19 comprises the huge number of beneficiaries of what may be described as the Ramazan economy.
For a very large number of shopkeepers and vendors, Ramazan is the month of unbridled profiteering. They charge exorbitant prices for fruits, vegetables and other requirements for iftar. Even where raising prices is not possible, and no special bazaars are allowed this year, the demand for syrups, sugar, milk, bread and many other foodstuffs goes up in the month of fasting.
By the middle of Ramazan, Eid shopping begins. This is the best period for the tailors. At the same time, the demand for readymade garments and footwear, especially for children, soars. It is doubtful if appeals for austerity will have an effect on a community that has shown little respect for the lockdown regime. Finally, will the city folk be prevented from joining their families in the countryside, which enables intercity road transport operators to increase their charges even for passengers on the roofs of their vehicles?
All these traditional activities and celebrations, including the iftar parties by politicians etc, are likely to be affected this year by financial constraints in the case of private-sector employees, because most of them might not be paid any wages. But there can be no way of curbing the traders’ expectations of the traditional Ramazan boom and the frustration of all those who still do not understand the tyranny of a pandemic.
Two other factors will considerably increase public frustration. One is the absence of relief for small businesses. For instance, a small shop owner has no means to pay his two or three employees or there is a family that depends on the monthly rent of a shop that the tenant cannot pay. In both cases, acceptance of restrictions on business means unbearable hardship.
The second cause of public frustration is difficulty in believing that the response to the epidemic is adequate and is as expeditious as possible. More than two months after the first coronavirus cases were reported, the arrangements for testing people for infection are on a dangerously low scale, and as a result, the number of affected people given out by the authorities appears to be lower than the actual number of patients. The work of bringing Pakistanis who are stranded abroad is subject to delays and the fares charged and the cost of stay in quarantine smack of exploitation and extortion.
Regardless of the merits of the Ehsaas cash disbursement, instead of asking the recipients to come to selected places it might have been better to revive the local bodies to bring funds for deserving families to their doorstep. Further, to offer food rations to everybody who asks for them is considered too radical to be adopted by Pakistan. The language of giving out the casualty figures needs to be improved. There may be room for appreciating an increase in the number of patients who have been cured of the disease, but to say that the number of cases is lower than feared amounts to insulting the sick and the dead. There will be cause for concern and anxiety even when the daily increase in cases of infection falls to a single digit.
It will thus be necessary to raise the level of official efficiency during Ramazan to make the slogans about staying home, maintaining social distance and frequent washing of hands effective.
Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2020