Mahmoud Hossam, a UN information officer at UNIC Cairo in Egypt, spoke to UNIS Geneva’s Solange Behoteguy Cortes about observing Ramadan and other changes during Covid-19.

A time like no other: from Sharkia to the rest of the world

“We are approaching Ramadan, so this is a time for social solidarity”, says Mahmoud Hossam, a 34-year-old Egyptian working at the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) in Cairo, where he lives with his family.

“Today is the Sham el Nassim festival, one of main occasions celebrated by Egyptians over thousands of years,” he adds. “Easter and Ramadan are also joyful occasions, but the usual public ceremonies of these occasions are missing today.”

Normally, at this special time in the spiritual calendar, when Christians celebrate Easter, Jews mark Passover and Muslims begin the holy month of Ramadan, people usually end the day with family gatherings and large feasts.

Ramadan restrictions

But with COVID-19 social distancing measures now the norm, to what extent will this change daily life? Mahmoud thinks it is too early to tell, although with the beginning of Ramadan still a few days away, it’s already clear that it won’t be like any that people have experienced before.

“This year, one of the main spiritual features - the ‘taraweeh’ prayers, one of the remarkable observances of Ramadan - won’t be allowed, to the disappointment of many Egyptians,” he explains.

In addition to ‘taraweeh’, voluntary prayers performed by Muslims together after the Isha prayer during the first part of the night, 'qiyam' prayers, also take place later at night, as part of the Ramadan ritual.

“We won’t have a full picture of the impact until the pandemic is over. So far, you can find anything you need in the markets, but what’s hard to find is the spirit of the old days,” Mahmoud says.

Home front challenges

Mahmoud is proud of his culture, passionate about his work and he loves his family. Which is why, when the UN instructed staff to start telecommuting, he decided to move to Sharkia, a mostly rural governorate, 80 kilometres from the capital. He thought he could contribute more in raising awareness within his community in the face of this unprecedented situation. Working from his home town was also a unique opportunity to be close to his parents.

But being based at home is no easy thing, Mahmoud says, his daughters – aged three and a half, and two – foremost in his thoughts. He tries to find space to play hide and seek with them. “You have to reorganize the time: work when they sleep, refurbish a room for work, and the truth is that at the end, you work more hours than you normally would in the office and on the weekend,” he explains.

Social bonds are strong in rural communities like Sharkia’s, where in the pre-COVID era, people would traditionally greet each other with a hug, hold hands, gather in cafés and markets and attend Friday prayers together. Not anymore.

Clear and present danger

“When this all started, people mocked social distancing, they didn't take it seriously. Now as the situation has evolved, and they see that the new coronavirus is dangerous, and between young people there’s a sort of acceptance of social distancing recommendations now.”

Among Sharkia’s older generations it’s clear that there’s been a sea change in attitudes too, which has meant embracing new forms of interaction. “Many elderly people have incorporated in their language words like Facebook or Twitter,” Mahmoud explains.

We mustn’t let people down

For Mahmoud, the need for reliable information in times of crisis has placed an additional responsibility on UNICs. “We can't let people down,” he says, explaining that UNIC Cairo translates all COVID-19 messages into Arabic, the main language in the region. “Translation is a key part of our job but it takes time, especially technical or medical information. We do our best to provide our audience with accurate information at the end of the day.”

As part of their routine work, Mahmoud and his colleagues amplify the official messages from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the government, whose measures to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic include reducing taxation on industries.

Beyond these traditional sources of information, there are also many positive initiatives in Egypt which the UN can help to share with new audiences, adds Mahmoud.

These include the Tahady el Kheir (Good Challenge) nomination of public personalities to make pledges of financial support to a certain number of families.

Curfew silence

During the daily curfew, from 7pm to 6am, the streets of Sharkia fall silent. By contrast, social media platforms are very much alive, frequently with unverified rumours and misleading information about the pandemic that have circulated in Egypt, as elsewhere. To counter this, UNIC Cairo with UNESCO and WHO launched in March, a social media campaign to empower people with valid information. The initiative provides tips to help social media users check rumours and facts.

By way of an example, Mahmoud explains that some villagers in the northern governorate of Dakahlia refused to bury a doctor who died this month of coronavirus in their village, fearing infection.

To reassure residents, UNIC Cairo used its social media channels to share WHO messages that there is no evidence that the dead bodies of people who died of COVID-19 can spread the disease. In the end, the villagers apologized to the doctor’s family.