Malaysia has extended the COVID-19 movement control order (MCO) for another two weeks. It was originally intended to last until 31st March, but now Malaysians will have to wait until 14th April before the country resumes public life. While the government has steadily announced measures throughout the past week to manage the economic repercussions and financial challenges faced by the Malaysian public, there is a spotlight on how this MCO has greatly affected SMEs and micro-businesses. I will return to this shortly.

I am concerned as to how the timing of the MCO will affect Muslims specifically.

Every year, Muslims perform their religious obligation to fast during the month of Ramadhan. This is considered a holy month where Muslims increase their good deeds and spiritual practices. From an economic perspective, however, data has shown that spending and consumption increases during Ramadhan.

SMEs and Micro-businesses: Enough preparation time?

For Malaysian-Muslims, Ramadhan consumption is generally geared towards two areas: food consumption and preparation for Eid celebrations. In commercial centers such as Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, revenues potentially double – sometimes in a day.

As far as food consumption is concerned, although Muslims fast during the day (from dawn until dusk), a lot of preparation is geared towards breaking fast. Hotels and restaurants offer buffet packages, and more importantly, micro-businesses flock public spaces or Bazaar Ramadan selling food for customers to take-away and consume at home.

The preparation for micro-business vendors leading up to Ramadhan should not be underestimated. The process for applying for permits to set up a stall at one of these bazaars is sometimes done as early as months before. For food vendors, stocks and logistics preparation is a key aspect in preparing for these annual bazaars, especially if cooking is done early in the day or the night before daily.

With regards to food supply, although the government has assured that it is adequate and that they are working out problems within the supply chain, there are legitimate concerns as to whether this supply will hold up as well as the fact that businesses purchase more goods than a typical consumer.

Now for timing, consider that this year, Ramadhan is slated to begin 23 April. That is nine days after the MCO is lifted, if it isn’t extended again.

Will this be enough time for SMEs and micro-businesses to prepare for Ramadhan? Especially considering that their daily income, reliant on being in the public space, has been greatly affected by the MCO.

Today, the Prime Minister is due to announce stimulus measures for SMEs and micro-businesses. As of the time of writing, the address has yet to be made, but we can only hope that the proposed measures will be able to help these vulnerable businesses weather the storm.

Ramadhan and social practices: a public health concern

Ramadhan, while inherently a spiritual month for all Muslims, is also steeped in being social. Earlier, we discussed how Ramadhan bazaars are a national tradition and culture shared among all Malaysians.

Another practice exclusive to Ramadhan is the tarawih prayers. These prayers, while sunnah (optional), is one that is widely practiced by the Muslim community collectively at their local mosques. This congregational prayer is performed daily throughout the entire month of Ramadhan.

These gatherings can potentially be a public health issue, as the MCO was intended to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus through public spaces such as the mosque or marketplace.

Why this is a concern is because JP Morgan analysts have predicted a peak of cases around mid-April. While the Malaysian government and healthcare system is working hard to flatten the curve (via social distancing or self-isolation, among other measures), there are an average of 100 increased cases and a death reported daily. This is a worrying statistic.

Although religious authorities decreed mosques (and other places of worship) to close during the MCO, the lifting of the order and a return to social-religious practices is potentially a public health issue. Especially so soon after the lifting of the MCO. There is precedent for this, like Hong Kong, after recently relaxing their restrictions, saw a ‘third wave’ spike in COVID-19 cases.

Extend MCO or create a ‘new normal’?

It is difficult to predict what the government should do next, as they are likely also looking at the data and making difficult decisions. To mitigate economic damage while maintaining manageable levels of public health.

China, to contain the pandemic, enforced months of restrictions. Can Malaysia afford to do this? Do we have enough of an economic safety net to weather through the storm? The Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) does not have a positive outlook, projecting a massive job loss for Malaysians and a shrinking of the GDP.

On the other hand, can public health overcome cultural practices such as the Malaysian affinity for food bazaars or religious community-based gatherings? This is a difficult way forward as religious identity and practice are strongly intertwined in Malaysian public life. In the initial stages of the pandemic, when religious authorities considered closing down mosques, there were quarters of the Muslim community who were unhappy with the move – seeing it as a restriction against their religious obligation.

With the COVID-19 pandemic happening so close to Ramadhan, and consequently, Eid – both which are deeply meaningful for Muslims, this will not be an easy year.

I can only hope that the government will be able to decide for the greater good and in the interest of the nation’s overall public health.