Toronto

How Muslim health-care workers fighting COVID-19 are finding community during Ramadan

Two health-care workers explain what drives them to observe 16-hour fasts while on the front-lines of a global pandemic.

2 health-care workers explain what drives them to observe 16-hour fasts while on the front lines

Nathika Rahumathulla is a registered nurse at Markham Stouffville Hospital who fasts for 16 hours a day during Ramadan. (Submitted/Nathika Rahumathulla)

Nathika Rahumathulla's throat is often dry these days. 

She works in the emergency department at the Markham Stouffville Hospital and has to wear full personal protective equipment (PPE) during her shifts, including a medical mask, which means she has to speak more loudly than she normally would when talking to her patients. 

That, combined with the 16-hour fasts Rahumathulla has been observing all month during Ramadan, equals a frequently parched throat, at the very least. 

And yet, the registered nurse says she is "grateful that Ramadan falls during this pandemic." 

Why?

"It's a chance to look at all that we're missing and realize how much we have. It's a chance to be grateful," she explained.

Rahumathulla​​​​​​​ is just one of the many Muslims who have been fasting while working on the front lines of a global pandemic. The fast in the GTA this year runs from around 4:30 a.m. to sunset for most of those who observe. During that time, Muslims stay away entirely from food and drink. 

Dr. Abdul Ghani Basith is an emergency physician at Markham Stouffville Hospital (Submitted/Abdul Ghani Basith)

The paper cup of water, and whatever else Dr. Abdul Ghani Basith can scrounge up to break his fast at the end of the day, is a far cry from the Iftars of years past for him.  

He would normally spend as many Iftars — the ritual breaking of the fast  — as he can sharing a feast with family and friends, socializing and praying together.

But since that's off limits during this time of physical distancing, he now tries to schedule his work hours at night, so his entire shift doesn't run during his fast. 

And that means an Iftar in a quiet spot somewhere. But, to Basith's surprise, it doesn't mean the absence of community.

"My co-workers and fellow staff at the hospital have been amazing. They're the ones, Muslims or not, constantly reminding me to step away and break my fast," he said.

It can be tough when you're focused on their patients, especially in an emergency setting, to remember to break their fast, the two doctors say.  And so to have everyone around you jumping in to support can feel like a lifeline. 

Distancing from family

"Often, one of [her fellow nurses] would always offer to monitor my patients for a few minutes so I can quickly break my fast," Rahumathulla​​​​​​​ said. 

The registered nurse lives with her family but is keeping her distance from them because of her work. She observes the morning and evening meals alone in her room while the rest of her family eats together. 

"It's a little more challenging," she said. "But you just have to remember why you're doing this in the first place. It's a chance to increase your humility and spirituality."

Muslims usually look forward to the Eid celebrations at the end of the month of fasting, which are coming up this weekend.

But as gatherings of more than five people are still banned in Ontario, both Rahumathulla​​​​​​​ and Basith anticipate a quiet Eid, unlike any before.

"It's going to be so difficult but we have to appreciate the fact that we're doing this now so that we can enjoy Eids to come with the more vulnerable people in our communities, so that we're not gathering and getting them sick," Basith said. 

"Although it's different, it's definitely worth it."