Posted on Mar 17, 2020
By Layla Abdullah-Poulos
At first, I wasn’t scared. News articles referred to it as the coronavirus, a name that has stuck. It seemed far away. Then, the disease spread the globe. I still wasn’t scared, but as I read social media feeds, I could see that a lot of people were.
I went to the stores close to me, rolling my carts by empty shelves where toilet paper, paper towels and water should have been. I stood in long lines, overhearing my fellow shoppers talking about how “bad this thing is.” I saw people frantic about an ominous apocalyptic-like catalyst, signaling the doom of humanity before. So, I figured everyone was in Y2K mode, stocking up to stave off impending destruction.
In late February, the Saudi government shut down the holy masajid in Makkah and Madinah to foreign visitors.
I started to take notice. Denying access to two of the three holiest places in Islam was a big deal, especially with Ramadan coming soon. Mosques are space where many Muslims connect with their Creator, and the Prophet (saws) attached special blessings to them:
Whoever goes to the mosque in the morning and evening, Allah will prepare for him a place in Paradise for every morning and evening. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 631, Sahih Muslim 669
Muslim women find many spiritual benefits for attending masajid, and our culture trains Muslim men at an early age about the importance of their presence for daily congregational prayer and Jumu’ah (Friday prayers). The drive to pray in Allah’s house is not easily turned off. The lack of paper products were one thing, but COVID-19 impeded the worship of millions of Muslims and brought with it tough decisions about how to worship.
Masajid around the world continued to close in various capacities. Just now, Saudi Arabia announced, like many other countries, cities and communities, that it was shutting all its mosques for congregational prayers except the Haram mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah.
Does one disregard medical and government warnings and venture into spaces while ill? Is it more pious to do so? Could one’s interpretation of devotion endanger those around them? I went to the closest Islamic source available. Imam Abdul-Lateef Poulos of the Islaamic Center of Mastic-Shirley in Long Island, New York. (Full disclosure, he is my husband.) His answer was straightforward.
“It is not Islamic or devout to put the lives of your fellow Muslims in jeopardy. Everyone deserves to be safe when worshiping Allah (S). Sick people should not come to the masjid. The fiqh is simple when it comes to this.”
His words were sensible and straightforward. However, the reality that his position would probably not resonate with many Muslims – and they will try and come anyway – was tangible and scary. There are Muslims out there who will prioritize their religious habits over everyone’s safety. I shivered for everyone.
The disease started to spread through New York.
The World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic after some hesitancy.
Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death. – Tedros Adhanom, WHO Director-General
I started reading about thousands of cases in the U.S., and people scrambled to avoid becoming sick, causing shortages of surgical masks and hand sanitizer. A tornado of information swirled on social media. Event cancellations (the NBA season, SXSW festival and countless others), school shutdowns and city containments made knowing what to do or where to go and where not to go (pretty much anywhere) only more confusing.
The containment of the city of New Rochelle, close to where I live, struck hard. My worries ratcheted with the realization that one of my closest’s friends lived there. COVID-19 became more than a viral phantom. It reached from western New York into my county. Sitting back and waiting it out was not an option. Questions raced through my mind as I lay awake at night. How scared should I be?
I consulted professionals.
Fortunately, I was able to talk with infectious disease specialist in Naperville, Ill., Anjum Owaisi, MD. With so much milling through social media and comments by overnight pseudo-epidemiologists and people who suddenly became experts (Read: they are not.), it was important to have a professional help sift through it all. My first question to her was how contagious is COVID-19?
“We are only going to know the real numbers probably in about a year from now. But as it stands, right now, it seems like COVID-19 is more transmittable because it can be spread via droplets [and] persists longer than other viruses.”
Dr. Owaisi gave me some perspective on how much of the agitation about the virus is a tangible concern and how much is general panic.
“We should never panic. Panic is not a good thing. It can lead to bad behaviors. [We] should take the [disease spread] seriously and exercise caution. It has been shown in the 70,000 plus cases in [a China study] that older people, people with chronic health conditions and weakened immune systems fared worse overall; 80 percent of cases had mild to minimal symptoms. Those were people who were younger and don’t have diabetes, heart disease or kidney problems and don’t have a weak immune system.”
She further explained why diseases like COVID-19 hit certain people so hard. “It’s like a stress test on the body. If you’re not healthy, you’re not going to do well on that stress test.”
I spoke with Dr. Owaisi about the communal nature of Islamic life and our worship (Jumu’ah, standing shoulder to shoulder in salah, the congregational breaking of the fast during Ramadan, etc.) and customs like shaking hands, hugging and kissing each other on the cheek, asking her what would be the best course of action for Muslims.
“You have to weigh the risks and benefits. People who are older or with chronic health problems, if this infection persists, then strongly consider using technology to [your] advantage. You can ... do your prayers at home.”
Dr. Owaisi offered advice for people still determined to go to the masjid. “If there are people who definitely want to congregate in the masjid (if one's masjid is still open, which most by this time are not), avoid handshaking and close contact. You can still greet your fellow Muslims with ‘As-salam alaykum,’ but you don’t have to touch them. There are ways you can be part of the Ummah but also stay safe.”
Image source: Pixabay
If you’re younger and otherwise healthy [and] don’t have somebody at home that you are concerned about spreading the disease to or not actively sick, [maintain social distancing and] wash your hands, using hand sanitizer in between. Maintain proper coughing and sneezing etiquette. Continue to be vigilant.”
I asked Dr. Owaisi if Muslim communities should anticipate COVID-19 still being around during Ramadan.
“We don’t know, compared to other respiratory viruses, if improvement of the weather and when people are not [crowded together] indoors that [COVID-19] will die out for the season. The virus that caused COVID-19 acts less like influenza and more like the SARS epidemic of 2003. What concerns us in infectious disease (and also epidemiologists) is that SARS did not die out once the weather got better. It persisted into the summer. We don’t know that [COVID-19] will die out.”
Dr. Owaisi’s final advice connected to the imam’s: “ ... stay home [as much as possible]. Tend to yourself at home. You’re doing yourself and your community a favor.”
Sifting through all of the information out there and concentrating on what will help us plan and prepare to keep our families as safe as possible is critical. COVID-19 may be new, but it is one outbreak on a continuum of disastrous situations threatening humanity.
For more information on COVID-19, visit the Center for Disease Control website.
How are you coping with all the closures, social distancing and quarantining? Share with us in the comments below! Let's support each other.