The holiest month in Islam is also when traders make money. This year could be very difficult for them and Muslim countries.
With Islam’s holiest month of Ramadan starting in two weeks, the lockdowns to stop the spread of the coronavirus have added to the anxiety businesses are already experiencing in the Muslim world.
It is during this month that Muslims fast, abstaining from food, drinks and other worldly pleasures during the daylight hours as one of the fundamental pillars of religion. But it’s also a time when evenings are spent at restaurants and malls, where billions of dollars exchange hands.
“What’s worrying are the pay cuts. There are reports that people have seen their salaries reduced by 30 percent to 50 percent in some cases. So even if the lockdown is lifted, customers won’t have a lot to spend,” says Sameer Mazhar Abbasi, 26, who runs a restaurant on the outskirts of Pakistan’s largest city Karachi.
Governments across the world have enforced shutdowns and curfews to keep people indoors in order to curb the spread of the contagious Covid-19 disease, which has killed nearly 90,000 in a matter of months.
Quarantine measures have already led to unprecedented layoffs in the United States and Europe as businesses face a massive fall in demand for their goods and services.
In Muslim countries, many of which are not known for keeping updated labour market statistics, the economic fallout of the pandemic can be severe as they either reel from high debt or have a narrow export base.
Abbasi told TRT World that it's during Ramadan that many restaurants give bonuses to their waiters who earn an average of $100 a month.
“We have paid salaries for this month but going forward it can become difficult for us. Even if the lockdown is lifted, I don’t think people will right away rush to restaurants because of the fear of getting infected.”
Late-night eating sprees are a common sight during Ramadan from Jakarta in Indonesia to Tripoli in Lebanon, bringing additional revenue for food sellers. In Dubai, special Ramadan Tents are organised for Iftar and Suhoor meals.
It is estimated that Muslims in the United Kingdom alone add $250 million to the national GDP in the month. In Malaysia, this expenditure goes up to $4 billion and Egyptians spend $94 million a day on food during the month.
With most international flights suspended, Saudi Arabia prohibited Umrah, the minor pilgrimage that millions of Muslims make this month. It might also suspend this year’s Hajj pilgrimage, which starts in July.
Every Muslim is supposed to take the journey for Hajj to Mecca once in a lifetime. Besides its religious significance, it’s also an important source of income for Saudi Arabia’s hospitality industry.
Saudi Arabia draws 20 million tourists every year, most of them coming for religious purposes.
Travel agents in other Muslim countries are in a fix over the suspension of Umrah as they already made payments for airfares, hotel rooms and transport. Indonesia’s Umrah and Hajj Organisers Association estimates that its members collectively would have to settle a bill of $71 million in cancelled Umrah trips alone.
More than 1.2 million Indonesians perform Umrah every year. Suspension means a severe hit to travel agents who have booked transport and hotels in advance for the journey.
While customers are asking for refunds, airlines have instead offered to defer the flights to a later but yet unspecified date.
But perhaps the biggest casualty of the lockdowns this Ramadan will be hundreds of thousands of hawkers and vendors who rely on roadside stalls in crowded markets to make money.
It’s common for traders to say that they can cover their entire year’s sales target in Ramadan.
In Malaysia, where the government has suspended all bazaars, some traders pay as much as $9,000 for a spot, according to The Malaysian Association of Malay Hawkers and Small Businessmen.
While almost all the established restaurants now use online platforms to make sales, small stall owners don’t have this luxury as their margins are not enough to be shared with delivery services.
This is where individuals like Amirul Rafiq, a Malaysian graphic designer, have stepped in to lend a helping hand.
Rafiq has started a Facebook page called Seremban Online Bazaar Ramadhan 2020 to help connect stall owners with customers via a network of riders.
“Ramadan bazaars are really important to all small entrepreneurs because this is one month when they get to earn and generate more profit,” he told TRT World.
“The Facebook group exists as an initiative to help the small business owners of Ramadan bazaars to keep their business going.”
Ramadan is also a time for big advertising expenditure as hundreds of millions of eyes remain glued to television screens for hours and channels compete for maximum ratings.
The New York-based Interactive Advertising Bureau says its recent survey showed that the majority of industry people think that coronavirus impact on advertisements would be worse than the 2008 financial crisis.
All of this can have an effect on what are known as ‘Special Ramazan Transmissions’ in countries like Pakistan where game shows and religious discussions have become a multimillion-dollar enterprise with TV channels dedicating hours to them.
In the Middle East there are concerns that viewers won’t be able to enjoy TV shows. As much as 70 percent of the series haven’t been finished and might be delayed because of the lockdowns.
But most all, it's the tradition that’s going to be affected. Residents of Istanbul and Tripoli have grown up seeing men in colourful clothes going around beating drums before dawn to make wake-up calls. When the Eid festival draws near at the end of the month, they come around asking for alms.
Will they be allowed out on the streets?