A post-pandemic Ramadan in a changed world

Ceremonies and rituals that signpost our lives had disappeared in the past 2 years

Muslims pray before breaking their fast at the end of the day during the holy month of Ramadan at Independence Square, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 13, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng
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Hard lockdown. Soft lockdown. No interstate travel allowed. Inter-district travel allowed. Pools and parks open, then closed. No more than one to a car, then two. Restaurants at 50 per cent capacity. Mask-wearing compulsory. Small family gatherings okay. Open for domestic tourism, but quarantine for returning visitors.

In countries like Malaysia where strict measures have been taken to try to contain Covid-19, there have been so many iterations of the rules since the pandemic started in 2020, with spells of opening up alternating with the return of restrictions as a new variant emerges, that we have become used to incremental changes. Initial outrage at disruption to daily routines – what do you mean the condo’s gym is shut indefinitely? – gave way to reluctant compliance. Buffeted by the regulations we had to admit were there to protect us from a virus that has killed millions globally, it has been easy to lose sight of just how dramatically our lives changed.

Even those who have been fortunate have lost something

Next month not only marks the beginning of Ramadan, significant in itself: but also for Malaysia 1st April will be when the country’s borders finally fully reopen for vaccinated travellers. Just over two years after we found ourselves under a very tough “Movement Control Order” with 36 hours’ notice, it set me thinking about the enormity and strangeness of this time.

At first it felt unbearably claustrophobic. I’d managed to buy a $30 step machine the night before the lockdown started – and it was the best 30 bucks I ever paid, since we were essentially confined inside for months. The police told security guards to stop residents walking around in their own car parks. One person per household could leave home to buy essential groceries, and that was it.

In many countries this whole period, with all its variations about what we could or could not do, will soon be in the past; although it is remarkable to consider that my seven-year-old son will have spent nearly one third of his life under the shrunken horizon and with the minimised personal contact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A mother and daughter look through a telescope to determine the sighting of the new moon to mark the start of the fasting month of Ramadan in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on June 15, 2021. EPA

Normal life cannot return for the huge numbers who have lost jobs, businesses, or loved ones. Their trauma will remain. It cannot be alleviated by the lifting of restrictions that will inevitably accompany accepting that the virus is now endemic.

In other ways, however, even those who have been far more fortunate have lost something. Home schooling – problematic for so many reasons – is one of the most obvious examples. Two of my former colleagues at the country’s national think tank, Calvin Cheng and Harris Zainul, recently wrote that “Asian Development Bank estimates suggest "learning losses" for Malaysia’s children from the shift to remote learning are among the highest in Asia”.

And for everyone, as of March 18, 2020, so many of the ceremonies and rituals that signpost our lives disappeared overnight. After Ramadan comes Eid Al Fitr, or Hari Raya Aidilfitri as we call the feast in Malaysia, and it is hard to overstate what a celebration it is here. For a whole month, families, officials and even workplaces hold “open houses” to which members of all faiths are invited.

Although people dress in brand new “baju Melayu”, traditional Malay attire, they are relaxed and festive gatherings. Attendees try not to over-indulge in the vast arrays of local cuisine laid out – not least as many will go to two, three or even four open houses on the same day.

Muslims wait for Eid al Fitr prayers at the Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. Mohd Rasfan / AFP

When I worked at the national think tank, one year the open house in the gardens of our colonial-era bungalow featured a bouncy castle. My younger son, who loved it, presumed it was a permanent fixture, possibly for the children of staff, or even for furrow-browed economists and security analysts to blow off steam on in between penning serious policy papers.

But there has been none of that for the last two years, just as we have experienced no repeat of witnessing an old friend’s residence fill up with well-wishers the day after he died, when all three of Malaysia’s then current and former prime ministers came to pay their respects, to offer prayers and share reminiscences.

Family members have died during this time, but even when there were small gatherings, those who lived in close proximity to elderly relatives like us had to restrict their movements for fear of passing on the virus to the vulnerable. Other regular fixtures, such as meeting two other families to swim and eat at a beautiful golf course in the shadow of Kuala Lumpur’s Twin Towers every Sunday morning, ceased abruptly as well.

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Published: March 23, 2022, 9:00 AM
Updated: March 29, 2022, 8:35 AM