Ramadan Begins Amid Coronavirus Restrictions: Live Coverage


Muslims begin a month of fasting under lockdowns.

The world’s major religions are grappling with how to commemorate some of their holiest days in a new way because of the coronavirus pandemic, restricting movement and banning large gatherings. For Passover, Easter and now Ramadan, times when the faithful gather in prayer, leaders are rethinking how to carry out their religious services.

On Friday, as the holy month of Ramadan began, many clerics and governments across the Muslim world will greet the fasting month under lockdown, with mosques shuttered and worshipers urged to stay at home. Millions are adjusting annual traditions, taking part in services streamed online and breaking their fasts without the typical large communal meals.

The World Health Organization, meanwhile, warned that across Europe, nursing homes might account for a much larger number of coronavirus deaths than reported, with as many as half of all fatalities from the virus occurring in long-term-care facilities.

“This is an unimaginable human tragedy,” Hans Henri P. Kluge, the organization’s regional director for Europe, said at a news conference in Denmark on Thursday. He added that in the coming months, the world must reconsider how these facilities operate and strike a balance between the needs of residents and their families, and ensuring that safe protocols are followed.

Some governments are hitting roadblocks in their bid to put more preventive measures in place or roll out widespread testing. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan promised that the government would give two masks to every household in Japan in a bid to stem the virus’s spread. Now, many of them are being recalled, according to two companies that produced them, in response to complaints about quality and cleanliness.

Britain on Friday began offering widespread coronavirus testing to essential workers and their families, but just hours after a website opened to process the test requests, it halted new applications because of the huge demand.

Germany, however, achieved a small moment of success on Friday when it brought home its final citizens as part of a repatriation effort for those stranded when coronavirus travel restrictions were put in place. The last flight with travelers landed at Frankfurt Airport on Friday morning, ending the ambitious repatriation program that began in mid-March.

Millions of essential workers in Britain and their families are now able to apply online to get a coronavirus test, after the British government on Friday extended coronavirus testing with the aim of reaching 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month.

But hours after the registration website launched, it was abruptly halted.

The Department of Health and Social Care said in a post on Twitter that the initiative had been temporarily shut down after “significant demand for booking tests.” More applications should become available on Saturday, the office said.

The measure is intended to allow all key workers who show symptoms of the virus including health care workers, social workers, delivery workers and members of their households, to register for testing on the government’s website. Previously, only health care employees and those working in nursing homes had been able to get tests if they were showing symptoms.

The initiative was announced by Matt Hancock, the British health secretary, during a Thursday news briefing. He said the government had significantly increased its testing capacity since the beginning of April and the new measures would allow essential workers to safely return back to work.

The government has been under intense pressure for failing to roll out wider testing as coronavirus cases rose even as health officials said they believed the country had passed the peak for infections.

Mr. Hancock also noted that 18,000 people would be hired to help trace coronavirus infections and Britain was testing a new National Health Service contact tracing app — part of an effort to “roll out contact tracing on a large scale.”

On Friday morning, in a BBC radio interview, Mr. Hancock reaffirmed his commitment to keeping lockdown measures in place until it was safe to ease the restrictions, adding that a second wave of the virus will be economically damaging.

“We’ve got to keep the public safe. And I understand the economic pressures, that is my background and I care deeply about that,” he said. “I understand those voices who are saying that we should move sooner, but that is not something we’re going to do.”

Since the outbreak began, 143,464 people in Britain have tested positive, and 19,506 of those who tested positive and were treated in hospitals have died. The true death toll is believed to be much higher.

Face masks were already a common sight in Hong Kong, but with the coronavirus pandemic, they have become an obligatory part of public life, familiar to virtually everyone. Less well known is their source.

Millions of surgical masks are being produced by inmates at Lo Wu prison in Hong Kong, some of them working late-night shifts for a fraction of the territory’s official minimum wage.

The prison has been churning out masks 24 hours a day since February, when Hong Kong’s government ramped up production to supply the city’s army of medical, public health and sanitation workers.

Inmates, along with retired and off-duty corrections officers volunteering their time, now produce 2.5 million masks per month, up from 1.1 million before the outbreak.

More than 4,000 inmates in Hong Kong work in prison industries, producing traffic signs, police uniforms, hospital linens and office supplies for the government. Such goods were valued at $57 million in 2018, according to the authorities.

The city’s Correctional Services Department said inmates who worked overnight or additional shifts did so voluntarily, and received higher wages.

But Shiu Ka-chun, a legislator, said that prisoners felt pressured to take on additional hours in the mask factory.

One recently released prisoner, Yannis, said that working overnight making masks, she earned $4.30 a day, or $0.61 per hour — at the high end for prison labor. She asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisal.

Inmates’ earnings often go back to the prison, spent at the commissary on products like menstrual pads and stationary.

Mr. Shiu, who served eight months last year for his role in pro-democracy protests, said he worked in a prison garment factory, earning up to $0.57 per hour.

“This is exploitation by nature,” he said.

Doctors in Pakistan have issued an urgent warning that the government was loosening its coronavirus lockdown too soon, allowing mosque gatherings for Ramadan and letting more work resume long before testing was widespread enough to gauge the pandemic’s progress.

“The next two to three weeks are very crucial,” said officials of the Pakistan Medical Association, a representative body of medical professionals.

As of Friday, Pakistan listed 11,155 active cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, with 237 deaths recorded so far.

But Dr. Ashraf Nizami, the president of the association’s Lahore chapter, said that testing in the country was starkly insufficient, and that the true numbers were likely much higher.

“I don’t want to scare you, but I would like to inform you that the cases are not in thousands, the number is much higher,” Dr. Nizami said during a televised news briefing in Lahore.

Dr. Nizami and his peers have also heavily criticized the move by the government to allow prayers in the mosques during the holy month of Ramadan, stressing that it would lead to an alarming spread of cases. The government and clerics have agreed on some safety measures, including urging worshipers to keep distance among themselves. But doctors fear that religious congregations will simply ignore the guidelines.

“The rule of a 6-foot distance between worshipers is not possible practically. We appeal to the government to review its decision and establish the writ of the state,” Nizami said.

Doctors’ representatives said the country’s already debilitated health infrastructure simply cannot cope with the health emergency if the numbers of coronavirus cases increase sharply. There is already a shortage of ventilators for patients, of isolation wards and beds, and of protective gear for medical staff. Doctors in several cities have clashed with the police as they protested against a lack of basic facilities and gear in recent weeks.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has been averse to a complete lockdown in the country from the start, stressing that daily wage workers and the poor cannot survive an economic shutdown. Mr. Khan said Thursday that the country should move toward a “smart lockdown.”

Before everyone else in the West, Italians received and largely obeyed an order to stay at home. “I’m staying home” became a hashtag, then the name of a national ordinance and then a motto hung from balconies and windows.

Italian households now represent “the biggest reservoir of infections,” said Massimo Galli, the director of the infectious diseases department at Luigi Sacco University Hospital in Milan. He called the cases “the possible restarting point of the epidemic in case of a reopening.”

The family acts as a multiplier, said Andrea Crisanti, the top scientific consultant on the virus in the Veneto region. “This is a ticking time bomb,” he said.

The predicament of home infections is emerging not just in Italy but in hot spots across the globe, in Queens and the Paris suburbs, as well as the working-class neighborhoods of Rome and Milan. It is also a problem that local officials and epidemiologists say is getting too little attention, particularly as the government has announced tentative steps toward reopening in early May.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised that the government would give two masks to every household in Japan. Now many of them are being recalled, according to two of the companies that produced them, in response to complaints about their quality and cleanliness.

The Japanese manufacturers Itochu and Kowa on Thursday announced that they would collect all undistributed masks and examine them for problems, following requests from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Days earlier, the health ministry said that it had received nearly 2,000 complaints about the masks, after its staff began delivering 500,000 of them, meant for use by pregnant women.

Mr. Abe’s mask-giveaway plan was mocked from the moment he announced it on April 1. Some social media wags called it “Abenomasks,” a play on the leader’s eponymous economic plan, known as Abenomics. Others posted illustrations of the country’s most beloved cartoon families fighting over the masks.

Once distribution began, the jokes turned to anger, as people posted photos of newly opened masks covered in filth, or freshly washed ones that had shrunk to the point of being unusable.

Both companies said in statements on Thursday that heavy demand had forced them to produce the masks outside of Japan — a not-so-subtle hint that the problems were related to unreliable foreign manufacturers.

While Itochu referred vaguely to problems “overseas,” Kowa singled out China.

Demand for surgical masks has been especially high in Japan, where it has long been customary to wear them during flu season, and even companies that would not normally produce them have gotten into the business.

On Tuesday, after a flood of eager consumers crashed the website of the electronics manufacturer Sharp, the company said that it would sell its latest line of masks via lottery.

Germany welcomed home passengers on the last flight of repatriated residents, which landed at Frankfurt Airport on Friday morning, ending an ambitious program started by the government in mid-March when around 240,000 Germans were left stranded by closed borders and reduced flights.

The unscheduled flight from Cape Town, which was operated by South African Airways, touched down at 9:35 a.m. local time, roughly five weeks after the German government started the repatriation program, called the Corona Air Bridge.

“You wouldn’t believe how many Germans are outside the country’s borders,” Chancellor Merkel noted in a speech to Parliament on Thursday morning, listing the repatriation efforts as a success in her government’s fight against the coronavirus.

Germany has been praised for its timely response to the coronavirus crisis, and the government quickly began to organize flights to bring Germans temporarily abroad home when lockdowns began around the world. Some countries closed their borders abruptly and flights were canceled.

The repatriation program brought home 240,000 Germans, most on scheduled commercial flights, but 66,000 were returned on a total of 260 flights chartered by the government, the German foreign ministry said. The government also brought back 6,100 European Union citizens and 3,300 nationals from other countries.

Up to half of all coronavirus-related deaths in Europe have occurred in long-term care facilities, including nursing homes, the World Health Organization said on Thursday, adding fuel to mounting criticism of how governments handled the virus there.

The picture emerging from long-term care facilitates in Europe in recent weeks has been “deeply concerning,” Hans Henri P. Kluge, the W.H.O.’s regional director for Europe, said in a news briefing.

“According to estimates from countries in the European Region, up to half of those who have died from Covid-19 were resident in long-term care facilities,” he said. “This is an unimaginable human tragedy.”

Most nursing homes across Europe have banned or limited family visits to help prevent the spread of the virus, but this has deprived residents of physical and emotional support and in some cases has resulted in abuse and neglect, the organization said.

“And yet equally troubling — the way that such care facilities operate, how residents receive care — is providing pathways for the virus to spread,” Mr. Kluge said, adding that the pandemic had exposed overlooked and undervalued corners of society, including long-term care, which has been “notoriously neglected.”

Almost half of coronavirus deaths in Ireland took place in nursing homes, according to Dr. Tony Holohan, the country’s chief medical officer, who announced on Thursday that 362 of the county’s 794 deaths were nursing home residents. But many other nations, including Britain, have not included the nursing home deaths among their daily count of fatalities.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said on Wednesday that it was hard to prevent deaths in care homes because of the vulnerability of the age group.

Official figures published by the Office for National Statistics say there were 975 coronavirus deaths in nursing homes in England by April 10. But figures compiled by the Care Quality Commission suggest that figure could double when taking into account deaths that occurred between April 11 and April 15.

“I’m sure we will see a high mortality rate in care homes, sadly, because this is a very vulnerable group and people are coming in and out of care homes, and that cannot, to some extent, be prevented,” Mr. Whitty said.

The Czech government on Friday eased many of the stringent restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus, lifting a ban on travel and allowing people to move freely outside their homes in groups of no more than 10 for the first time in more than a month.

“We believe that from the epidemiological point of view we can now ease the ban,” said Adam Vojtech, the health minister. Under restrictions put in place on March 16, Czechs could only go to work and return home and spend time outside in groups of two, with the exception of family members.

Like many other European nations, the Czech Republic swiftly locked down the country soon after its first cases were confirmed. As with neighboring nations, it is beginning to open up again, but the measures are being lifted at a much faster pace.

The government says this is partly because the country has a comparatively low number of cases, and new infections continue to fall as well. The Czech Republic reported the lowest increase in positive test results since mid-March on Thursday, with just 55 new cases, bringing the total number to 7,188. There have been 213 deaths in the country since the outbreak began.

Beginning Friday, Czech citizens can also travel abroad, though when they return they will have to show they have tested negative for the virus or go into a two-week quarantine at home. It is unclear how residents could obtain a test or who would monitor the quarantine.

Some worry that the restrictions are being lifted too soon and that the parameters for travel are unrealistic, among them Jan Papez, the vice chairman of the Czech Association of Travel Agencies.

“The optics are good and it looks democratic, but in reality it will not mean much,” Mr. Papez said. “Hardly anybody can put themselves in a quarantine after taking holidays, and coronavirus tests are not easy to obtain commercially.”

The government is seeking to ease other restrictive measures more quickly, moving up the reopening date for restaurants, hotels, theaters and similar establishments by two weeks to May 25 from June 8. On Wednesday, the Czech Republic started an antibody study that will test 27,000 people, hoping for a clearer picture of how many people have been touched by the disease.

Indonesia marked its first Ramadan in the era of social distancing on Friday with mixed results, as thousands of Muslims gathered at mosques to pray despite religious edicts from major Islamic groups urging them to stay home.

Indonesia’s largest mosque, Istiqlal, which is in the capital, Jakarta, and can hold 200,000 people, canceled plans to hold prayers to start the fasting month of Ramadan.

But worshipers gathered to pray at mosques in other parts of the country, including the autonomous province of Aceh, where as many as 10,000 Muslims gathered in Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, according to local news media reports.

Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, has reported more than 8,200 confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 700 deaths, based on limited testing. Health experts fear that the virus has already spread widely throughout the country.

Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, banned people this week from returning to their villages for Ramadan.

“There is no splendor on the streets, the mosque space is in silence,” the president said in a message to mark the start of Ramadan. “Let’s welcome the blessing of Ramadan as a moment to break the chain of transmission of the plague for the sake of personal safety, relatives, and the entire nation.”

Ahead of Ramadan, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which together claim about 70 million followers, issued fatwas urging followers not to gather for traditional prayers or iftar dinners to break their fast.

Muhammadiyah cited the Prophet Muhammad’s own words advising followers not to enter a disease-stricken area or leave a place where a plague has struck.

Hong Kong is slowly coming back to life after nearly two weeks of recording new coronavirus infections in the single digits. Thousands of high school students sat for college entrance examinations on Friday, as dozens of antigovernment protesters gathered at a shopping mall for an unrelated demonstration.

The exams had been delayed by a month, and schools in the semiautonomous Chinese territory are still closed for classes. But the test takers were permitted to enter school grounds after undergoing temperature checks and disinfection measures, and their desks were spaced farther apart than usual.

Also on Friday, a group of antigovernment demonstrators gathered — mostly at a safe distance from each other — inside a luxury mall in Hong Kong’s Central district to chant pro-democracy slogans. They were challenging Beijing days after more than a dozen pro-democracy activists and former lawmakers were arrested in connection with the protests that raged in the city last year.

Here’s what else is happening in China:

  • The Hong Kong authorities said that, as of Friday afternoon, no new infections had been recorded over the last day.

  • The Chinese government on Friday reported no new coronavirus deaths for at least the seventh straight day on the mainland, and confirmed that six new people had fallen ill with the virus. It also reported 34 new asymptomatic cases.

  • In the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, the authorities are prosecuting a man from Belize whom they accuse of “colluding with foreign anti-China forces to intervene with Hong Kong affairs,” the Chinese outlet Southcn.com reported on Friday. The man is thought to be the first foreigner to be prosecuted over the Hong Kong protests.

Australia reported its first case on Jan. 25, New Zealand on Feb. 28. But compared with Mr. Trump and leaders in Europe, Prime Ministers Scott Morrison of Australia and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand responded with more alacrity and with starker warnings.

Both nations are now reporting just a handful of new infections each day, down from hundreds in March, and they are converging toward an extraordinary goal: completely eliminating the virus from their nations.

Whether they get to zero or not, what Australia and New Zealand have already accomplished is a remarkable cause for hope. Mr. Morrison, a conservative Christian, and Ms. Ardern, New Zealand’s darling of the left, are both succeeding with throwback democracy — in which partisanship recedes, experts lead, and quiet coordination matters more than firing up the base.

“It’s a case of politicians just not being in the way,” said Ian Mackay, an immunologist at the University of Queensland who has been involved in response planning for the pandemic. “It’s a mix of things, but I think it comes down to taking advice based on expertise.”

The prospect of a return to near normalcy in these two countries may end up being a mirage or temporary triumph: Other nations that had seemingly kept the virus at bay, like Singapore, have seen rebounds.

And yet, if there are any two countries that could pull off a clear if hermetically sealed victory — offering a model of recovery that elevates competence over ego and restores some confidence in democratic government — it may be these two sparsely populated Pacific neighbors with their history of pragmatism.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has extended a lockdown in the capital, Manila, and threatened to impose martial law to quell Communist guerrillas that he accused of attacking aid deliveries.

In a meeting with his advisers on Thursday night, which was aired on television Friday morning, Mr. Duterte agreed to extend an “enhanced community quarantine” in greater Manila and some provinces until May 15.

Mr. Duterte imposed a lockdown on the island of Luzon, home to Manila and about 60 million people, in mid-March. It had been scheduled to end on April 15 and was later extended to the end of the month.

As of Thursday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the Philippines stood at almost 7,000, with total deaths nearing 500. Those tallies are among the highest in Southeast Asia.

Mr. Duterte had been falsely claiming that he was the first leader in Asia to impose a lockdown. In fact, he initially resisted the move, assuring Filipinos in February that there was nothing to be scared of.

At the meeting on Thursday, Mr. Duterte said that he might impose martial law to quell communist guerrillas, whom he accused of preying on virus-related aid convoys. He did not mention a specific incident, but earlier this week, two soldiers who were distributing cash aid to a poor community on Luzon were killed in an attack.

“I am now warning everybody and putting the police and the A.F.P. on notice,” Mr. Duterte said, referring to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. “I might declare martial law and there will be no turning back.”

The Philippine military blamed the recent attack on New People’s Army, a group that has been waging a communist insurgency since the 1960s. But the group did not claim responsibility.

Governors and mayors from around the United States have been pleading with Washington for aid to help them keep workers on their payrolls. But Congress did not provide money for state governments in a $484 billion relief package that the House passed on Thursday, setting up the next political battle over pandemic relief.

The package, which President Trump is expected to sign on Friday, replenishes a depleted small-business loan program. The Labor Department reported on Thursday that another 4.4 million people filed initial unemployment claims last week, bringing the five-week total to more than 26 million. Nearly one in six American workers has lost a job in recent weeks.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, said that states should consider filing for bankruptcy rather than look for handouts. His aides threw fuel on the fire in a news release that said the Senate leader was opposed to “blue state bailouts,” suggesting it was Democratic-leaning states that were seeking the money to take care of problems caused by fiscal mismanagement.

Here’s what else is happening in the U.S.:

  • President Trump has been eagerly theorizing — dangerously, in the view of some experts — about the powers of sunlight, ultraviolet light and household disinfectants to kill the virus.

  • Researchers say that hidden coronavirus outbreaks were creeping through cities like Chicago, New York, Seattle and Boston in January and February, weeks earlier than previously known.

  • One of every five New York City residents tested positive for antibodies to the coronavirus, according to results from random testing of 3,000 people.

  • United Airlines said its flight attendants would be required to cover their faces while on duty, starting on Friday

The thought of getting on a plane is far from most people’s minds at the moment, as they shelter in their homes. But some people have no choice but to fly now, whether it is returning from a long trip or rushing to leave a country as a visa expires.

In the days of the coronavirus, travelers are often taking extreme precautions to protect themselves. They wear anything from plastic ponchos to laboratory goggles to biohazard suits. They wipe down tray tables and arm rests with disinfectant. Some passengers say they avoid using the lavatory, even on transcontinental flights, believing there is a higher risk of infection there. Many pack their own food, and keep their protective gear on even as they sleep.

When Billy Chan flew home to Hong Kong from London in mid-March, he wore a disposable protective suit, goggles and an N95 mask. He changed his mask twice during the 13-hour flight, using hand sanitizer each time.

Stacie Tan, who flew to her home in Malaysia from Oregon on April 1, wore goggles, gloves and a mask on the plane.

“I knew that someone might look at me and laugh,” Ms. Tan said. “It’s better than lying in the hospital, right?”

Linsey Marr, an expert in airborne disease transmission at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, said it made sense to wear protective gear on an airplane, given the tight quarters.

“I think the most important thing to do would be to wear a face covering, a mask of some sort,” said Dr. Marr, who studies how viruses spread in the air. “Goggles aren’t a bad idea, especially if they will prevent you from touching your eyes.”

Reporting was contributed by Christopher F. Schuetze, Hana de Goeji, Megan Specia, Mike Ives, Ben Dooley, Jason Horowitz, Emma Bubola, Dera Menra Sijabat, Ceylan Yeginsu, Yonette Joseph, Mike Wolgelenter, Salman Masood, Richard C. Paddock, Jin Wu, Vivian Lin, Thomas Fuller, José María León Cabrera, Anatoly Kurmanaev, Dan Levin, Elaine Yu, Andrew LaVallee, Jason Gutierrez, Farnaz Fassihi, Damien Cave and Victor Mather.

Source : Nytimes