A quieter Ramadan under the spectre of Covid-19

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Ramadan bazaar - Photo: Choo Yut Shing/Flickr

This time the frenzy and excitement of Ramadan shopping has dried up for consumers and vendors, Veloo Saminathan writes.

Ramadan in 2020 will always remain unique as it began amid the ravages of Covid-19, which has infected almost four million people and killed more than a quarter of a million so far. 

In Malaysia, fighting the spread of the coronavirus is mainly through the government-imposed movement control order, enforced by the police and the armed forces.  

The order has now been relaxed, to allow, for example,  four people from the same house to travel in the same car. 

But mass gatherings, including prayers in mosques, churches, temples, and gurdwaras, are still prohibited. This shows the serious nature of the pandemic. 

Some sort of relief (if it can be called that) may be discerned with the flattening of the Covid-19 curve.

Local newspapers reporting the news, however, have been cautious. “Hope at hand but threat still there” has been the attitude. 

It is difficult to confine entire families indoors. There are families in the bottom 40% of the population in semi-urban areas with 10 or more members living in cramped two-room flats. These are People’s Housing Project flats, specially built for this group by the government.

The elderly among them – some over 80- are usually frail and sick. They need to be cared for. Fortunately, some able-bodied ones are now allowed to go back to work. 

But their children, who no longer attend school, are confined to a cramped space, mostly unable to go out and play together. 

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Then there are those restricted to specific areas that have been declared “red zones”. The people there live under controlled conditions and have to undergo medical screening to identify infected cases. This is not easy but unavoidable. Like those in the People’s Housing Project flats, they live under acute strain.

How to keep the people occupied may sound like a trivial problem – but this is the abject state into which Covid-19 has pushed the country and the rest of the world. 

Experts predict that the current short-term timeframe is insufficient in view of the contagious nature of the virus. They suspect the coronavirus might assume newer forms. Or it may momentarily subside, only to re-emerge in more waves. 

In the past, many frequented Ramadan bazaars for the range of savouries on sale the whole month. Office workers would flock to these bazaars after work – a sprinkling of non-Muslims too. But this year, the government has prohibited the bazaars for fear people might get infected.

Similarly, Raya shopping used to begin as soon as Ramadan began and would reach fever pitch as Raya approached. Media would be full of alluring ads and jaw-dropping “discounts” while crowds would throng the malls. Well-to-do families would replace their carpets, curtains and even household appliances with more fashionable or expensive versions.

But with the movement control order, the bottom of this Ramadan bonanza fell off. Even before the lockdown, many malls were already on life-support. Vendors had no choice under the lockdown but to close their outlets and wait out for better times. 

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So this time the frenzy and excitement of Ramadan shopping has dried up for consumers and vendors. Business losses could run into the billions. 

Many sectors of the economy are crumbling, and businesses are seeking government help for survival. Experts have urged the government to come up with an all-embracing blueprint. But so far only piecemeal cash grants have been made. 

The big question now is who in politics or government will be able to bell the cat. 

Veloo Saminathan is a former senior civil servant

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