Ramadan fasting safe in COVID-19 pandemic: UK study

Researchers who studied data from 2020 say practices in Muslim holy month did not have negative effect on COVID deaths.

Muslims typically abstain from eating food and drinking from dawn until sunset during Ramadan, which lasts for about four weeks [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – Fasting practices in the United Kingdom during Ramadan last year did not lead to higher COVID-19 mortality rates among Muslims, according to a new report.

The study, published on Thursday in the peer-reviewed Journal of Global Health, said there was no evidence to suggest that British Muslims who observed the holy month were more likely to die from a coronavirus infection.

During Ramadan, which lasts about four weeks, Muslims across the world abstain from eating food and do not drink anything from dawn until sunset.

There are more than three million Muslims in the UK, about five percent of the population, and most have South Asian origins.

Many Muslim communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, along with other minority groups.

“Our findings suggest that the practices associated with Ramadan did not have detrimental effects on COVID-19 deaths,” the report said.

“There has been much commentary suggesting that the behaviours and cultural practices of minority communities explain their increased exposure to the pandemic,” it added, alluding to suggestions by some UK commentators last year that there could be a “spike” in infections during Ramadan.

“These claims are not evidence based. Rather, they are unhelpful distractions from inequalities in the social determinants of health, particularly inequalities in living and working conditions, that have been key drivers of health inequalities for all socially disadvantaged groups prior to as well as during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Fasting did not have ‘detrimental effect’

The report was based on a comparative analysis of COVID-19 mortality rates during last year’s Ramadan, which began on April 23, shortly after the first wave of the pandemic peaked in the UK.

Usual festivities and communal prayers at mosques were cancelled during the month, in line with a nationwide lockdown.

Researchers analysed death rates in more than a dozen local authority areas in England where the Muslim population was at least 20 percent.

They found that deaths fell steadily in these areas during the Ramadan period.

Furthermore, this trend continued post-Ramadan, the report said, “suggesting that there was no lagged detrimental effect of fasting in the Muslim areas”.

Salman Waqar, who co-authored the study, told Al Jazeera the findings suggested Ramadan did not have “detrimental effects” on COVID-19 outcomes.

He indicated the data also contradicted comments from some politicians and other commentators that “certain communities, in particular, Muslims” were responsible for rises in cases last year.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella body, meanwhile said the report disproved negative assumptions – largely perpetuated by the far right – that Muslims would break lockdown rules in Ramadan and cause a spike in infections.

Such perceptions were “steeped in prejudice”, designed to scapegoat Muslim communities, and distract from the “wider structural health inequalities” that they and other marginalised groups face, Omar Begg, MCB spokesman, told Al Jazeera.

Hope for a Ramadan ‘free from assumptions’

The report on Thursday came less than two weeks before this year’s Ramadan is scheduled to begin on April 13.

“We hope this Ramadan will be free from … assumptions, and that pragmatic actions are taken at a policy level to address the causes of the inequalities the pandemic has spotlighted,” Begg said.

Many of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims fast during Ramadan. Some, such as those who are unable to because of health reasons, or children, are exempt.

Waqar called on British Muslims to “take every precaution” during this year’s holy month, despite an easing of England’s lockdown and a drop-off in infection rates, bolstered by a rapid mass vaccination campaign.

“This is especially [important] considering the disproportionate impact that Muslim communities have endured in terms of COVID cases and deaths, but also in vaccine uptake,” Waqar said, referencing a sense of vaccine hesitancy among some Muslims and other minorities in the UK.

Al Jazeera contacted the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for comment on the report.

In response, a spokesperson for the government did not address the report’s findings directly but instead said there was “clear evidence COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted certain groups”.

“We are doing everything we can to protect and minimise the risk to the most vulnerable individuals and communities,” the spokesperson said.

“As part of this we’re working tirelessly with faith and community leaders to give them advice and information about the benefits of vaccination and how their communities can get a jab,” they added.

Source: Al Jazeera