Muslims across the world began marking the holy month of Ramadan under unprecedented coronavirus lockdowns on Friday as the US added another half a trillion dollars to an economic support package and Europe groped towards its own huge rescue plan.
The virus has upended life around the planet as nations try to stop the spread of the disease that has so far claimed more than 190,000 lives, infected 2.7 million people and hammered the global economy.
Ramadan spirits have been dampened by movement restrictions on hundreds of millions of Muslims from Southeast Asia to the Middle East and Africa, with bans on prayers in mosques and large gatherings of families and friends to break the daily fast — a centrepiece of the month.
But despite the coronavirus threat, clerics and conservatives in many countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation — have pushed back against social distancing rules, refusing to stop gatherings in mosques.
Several thousand people attended evening prayers on Thursday at the biggest mosque in the capital of Indonesia’s conservative Aceh province, and there were similar scenes at many sites in Pakistan.
“I’m not worried because I’m wearing a face mask and keeping my distance,” said Cut Fitrah Riskiah, one of those in attendance at the biggest mosque in Aceh’s capital.
The World Health Organization has called for a stop to some Ramadan activities to lower the risk of infections, and authorities in several countries have explicitly warned of the threat from large religious gatherings.
There have already been explosions of coronavirus cases from three separate Islamic congregations in Malaysia, Pakistan and India since the virus first emerged late last year in China.
Distancing measures and the severe economic impact of the pandemic have also meant many charitable activities during Ramadan, especially food distribution and other donations, have been hit hard.
Salah Jibril, an unemployed Palestinian man who lives with his wife and six children in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in the Gaza Strip, said he was not sure how his family would cope without Ramadan donations.
“The markets and mosques are closed. The good people who give us money or aid each Ramadan are facing a tough situation,” he said.
“This is the hardest Ramadan we have faced. We don’t know how we will cope.”
– Massive economic stimulus –
The economic devastation wreaked by lockdowns that have half the planet indoors is huge, with the world facing its worst downturn since the Great Depression.
US lawmakers covered their faces with masks and voted in small groups to approve a $483 billion stimulus plan, on top of the $2.2 trillion package already enacted.
The money will back small businesses on the brink of bankruptcy and hard-pressed hospitals as the American economy reels, with more than 26 million people losing their jobs since the pandemic hit.
The United States is now the worst-affected nation in the world, with about 50,000 coronavirus deaths.
In Europe, leaders haggled by video conference over their own package that could top one trillion euros, as the European Central Bank chief warned of the risk of “acting too little, too late”.
The 27-nation European Union agreed to ask the bloc’s executive arm to come up with a rescue plan by May 6, sources told AFP.
The crucial economic discussions come as parts of Europe slowly loosen restrictions after progress on reducing the number of new infections.
But experts have warned of a possible second wave of cases, and authorities are ramping up their capacity to deal with it in Germany — where curbs on public life have been eased recently.
Virologist Christian Drosten of Berlin’s Charite hospital warned that the coronavirus could return with a “totally different force”.
“The virus will continue to spread in the course of the next weeks and months,” Drosten told public broadcaster NDR, adding that it could pop up “everywhere at the same time”.
– Race for vaccine –
While the disease appears to be peaking in Europe and the United States, other nations are still in the early stages of the fight.
The World Health Organization has warned that strict measures should remain until there is a viable treatment or vaccine.
The race is on around the world to develop one, with the University of Oxford launching a human trial for a potential vaccine on Thursday. Germany announced similar trials will start by next week.
In a briefing at the White House, scientists said they had found that the virus was quickly destroyed by sunlight, raising hopes that the pandemic could ease as the northern hemisphere summer approaches.
It prompted US President Donald Trump to suggest researchers investigate whether it would be possible to inject light and disinfectant into the body to cure the disease — comments that raised eyebrows among medical professionals.
“Is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?” Trump said.
“It sounds interesting to me.”
But his suggestion was met with disbelief by many experts who cautioned against any such experiment, with Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy saying injecting disinfectant would be “quite toxic”.