COVID-19: Maldivians struggle with 'new normal' in Ramadan

The Maldives is a Muslim country that traditionally approaches and celebrates the month of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, with much vigour and energy. People begin preparing for Ramadan days- sometimes even months- ahead.

While people engage in acts of worship in anticipation of the month, including voluntary fasting in the month leading up to Ramadan, or hurriedly catching up on any missed fasts from the previous year, people also prepare for the 'fasting but feasting' month by renovating their homes and purchasing new appliances. Local shops organize different attractive sales, and restaurants start promoting their new menus for Ramadan.

Maldives also has a festive tradition of organizing 'Maahefun' , [literally meaning 'big munch'] to celebrate the upcoming month. All sorts of food are piled high on tables, and family, friends and colleagues gather to celebrate joyously.

The country being a small country, most people know each other in one way or the other, and has close-knit communities. Maldivians used to especially look out for their neighbours to ensure that their needs are met. Elders used to say if a person hears his neighbour scraping the bottom of their pots during Suhoor [late night meal], he would rush to share his food with his neighbour. The tradition may not be the same now, but gifts of delicious home-made food are still sent to family, friends and neighbours during Ramadan.

However, all such traditions have been compromised this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With about ten days remaining for Ramadan, Maldives recorded its first case of local transmission within the community in capital Male'. All sorts of warning bells were rung, and a lockdown was immediately imposed in the capital. Even since before that, the government had already restricted movement after the first positive case of the virus was detected in the Maldives, and a Public Health Emergency was soon declared. Health experts urged the public to practice 'a new normal' and stay home to contain the spread of the virus.

Maldivians have never before experienced Ramadan in such a disheartening way - perhaps not in this century. This may be one of the reasons people seem to be having difficulty in adapting to the 'new normal'.

During Ramadan, Maldivians used to invite family members’ and friends for the evening breakfast meal 'Iftar' to their homes or go out to restaurants to break their fast with delicious delicacies. After finishing the congregational Tarawih prayers, which most people describe as one of the best parts of Ramadan, people gather for food or chit-chat, or go for drives and get some fresh air. However, this Ramadan, the usual timeline has been compromised for the safety and security of everyone.

Although movement was restricted, families and friends sent tupperware filled with food to their loved ones. Surely, this cannot be dangerous? Afterall, no one was allowed to mingle with others or visit their homes. There were no restrictions on 'deliveries'?

By the time the first ten days of Ramadan passed, health experts warned against sending food to family and friends living in different households - carrying food from one apartment to the other, from one household to the other is just another way of possibly 'carrying the virus' to loved ones along with the food, warned doctors.

Dr Ibrahim Afzal from the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) said a large number of people infected with the virus shows little to no symptoms of the disease. Even if one feels absolutely fine, it is high time to stop carrying food from one place to the other unless absolutely necessary, the doctor warned.

With Ramadan coming to an end in less than ten days, Muslims across the globe will be celebrating the 'Eid' festivities differently this year. Although the end of the holy month is traditionally marked with congregational prayers in which the whole community participates, different games and parades, gift exchanges and parties, and scrumptious meals with family and friends, this year, all must stay home to ensure the most important 'celebration' - the celebration of good health of loved ones and the country by ensuring their safety.