Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country of around 212 million people, marks the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan on Saturday, April 25. It is, however, not an ordinary Ramadan, as the country struggles to cope with the surging cases of the novel coronavirus.
By Friday, Pakistan recorded more than 11,000 COVID-19 cases despite limited testing for the disease. Around 237 people have so far died from the virus. On April 15, Pakistan registered around 6,000 confirmed coronavirus cases; a week later, the infections rose to over 11,000, almost a 50% spike.
Ramadan is a month when more Muslims offer prayers in mosques and visit supermarkets. Many people were expecting that Prime Minister Imran Khan's government would impose a strict ban on mass prayers – including the special Ramadan prayers in mosques – to slow the spread of COVID-19. But Khan, a conservative politician who enjoys right-wing support, decided against shutting down the mosques. The government, however, urged Islamic clerics to ensure social distancing rules during Ramadan prayers.
Top Pakistani doctors on Tuesday warned that congregational prayers will be disastrous for the country.
"With Ramadan approaching, we would understandably expect higher number of namazis (worshippers) attending the prayers. Moreover, long Taraweeh prayers (speical evening prayers during Ramadan) and waiting times will lead to prolonged gatherings,".the doctors said in a letter to PM Khan and President Arif Alvi.
"It is all but certain that this will cause significant mayhem, as the mosques practising social distancing will only be able to accommodate 20-25% of the regular namazis, which will further worsen the situation," the letter added.
A recipe for disaster?
PM Khan told media on Thursday that he was cognizant of doctors' concerns, but his government cannot stop people from praying in mosques.
Khan has been slammed for an apparent "lack of policy" to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics say his government has been sending mixed signals about the lockdown, which has resulted in people not taking it seriously. The prime minister has also been lenient with Islamic groups even though the primary coronavirus infections were detected among the returning pilgrims from Iran and the Sunni hardliners who refused to follow social distancing rules in their assemblies.
"It is unfortunate that people are bent on going to mosques for congregational prayers. Now, with the easing of lockdown restrictions, even more people will head to the mosques, which could result in a higher number of coronavirus cases. I fear that our health system could collapse," Obed Usmani, an Islamabad-based health expert, told DW, adding that Ramadan relaxations are a recipe for disaster.
"The government should not only ban congregational prayers but must impose curfew to make it more effective," Usmani added.
Shahnaz Khan, a doctor who is based in the eastern city of Lahore, says that instead of consulting health experts, Khan's government is seeking advice from Islamic clerics. "The government should pay heed to doctors' advice instead of appeasing religious groups. I am worried about the impact of government's decisions," Khan told DW.
Doctors fear that the easing of social distancing restrictions and the clerics' defiance of the lockdown could put them in harm's way.
"We are facing an acute shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and other medical facilities. The government is not helping us, not providing protective gear to the medical staff working in emergency wards," Tipu Sultan, former president of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), told DW.
"On top of it, the government is easing restrictions and clerics are vowing to hold mass prayers in mosques. It could all lead to a surge in coronavirus cases in the country. I fear that our entire public healthcare system will be overwhelmed," Sultan added.
Is Khan appeasing fundamentalists?
In contrast to the federal government's response to the coronavirus outbreak, the southern Sindh province has imposed stricter measures to tackle the pandemic.
On Thursday, Sindh's Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah announced the evening Ramadan prayers will be restricted to 3-5 persons while others will have to offer prayers at home.
Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo, a former minister from Baluchistan province, told DW that Khan's government was not serious in tackling the pandemic. "The government has surrendered to clerics and other interest groups. In most Islamic countries, mosques have been shut down. The state must establish its writ by reining in the mullahs," he said.
Khan is known for his "soft spot" for Islamic fundamentalists. He has remained a supporter of talks with the Taliban throughout his political career. Liberal analysts say he does not want to lose his right-wing support. They are also of the view that it is not the time for politics as the country is facing an existential threat.
Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party rejects allegations that the government is appeasing right-wing groups.
Muhammad Bashir Khan, a PTI lawmaker, says Pakistanis believe that by praying to God the virus will be eliminated.
"The US has recorded more than 600,000 coronavirus cases. The situation in Europe is also devastating. China, too, suffered a great deal. How many of these cases were related to mosques or prayers?" asked Khan. "We have not surrendered to clerics; we just want to please God."