How Berlin’s Muslims are fighting pandemic with Covid tests before Ramadan prayers

German authorities are working with religious communities to help raise awareness of coronavirus and regular testing. Here's how it's working among Muslims in Berlin during the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

How Berlin's Muslims are fighting pandemic with Covid tests before Ramadan prayers
Muslims being tested for Covid-19 in front of the Dar-as-Salam mosque in Neukölln, Berlin, in April. Photo: DPA

With his head tilted back and his face mask pulled down, Imam Abdallah Hajjir patiently undergoes a nasal swab outside a Berlin mosque to get tested for the coronavirus.

“Negative!” he smiles a few minutes later, and heads inside for Friday prayers.

The medical team manning a testing station outside the red-bricked “House of Wisdom” mosque is part of a push by authorities in the German capital to raise Covid awareness among Muslims during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, and among migrant populations more generally.

Sitting at a table in the building’s parking lot, the staff made up of Libyans, Syrians and Armenians carry out free rapid testing for a steady stream of worshippers lining up with prayer mats rolled up under their arms.

READ ALSO: Germany’s top court rules against coronavirus ban on religious services

‘Protecting society’

Imam Abdallah Hajjir, wearing a gold-rimmed cap, says encouraging the congregation to get tested is a way “to contribute” in the fight against the pandemic.

“By protecting the members of our community, we are protecting those they come into contact with, so society as a whole,” he told AFP.

Around 35 percent of Berlin residents have a migrant background, and neighbourhoods with the highest proportion of migrants have recorded the highest number of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began a year ago.

They are often also the areas where population density is above average.

Many immigrants live in close quarters in small apartments, or in asylum centres where up to five people sometimes share a single room.

Last October, the OECD sounded the alarm and said migrant workers were “on the frontline” of the pandemic in developed countries.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of some 40 mostly rich nations, estimated that the risk of a coronavirus infection was “at least twice as high” as among the rest of the population.

A coronavirus testing station at a mosque in Neukölln, Berlin. Photo: DPA

In Germany as elsewhere, people with foreign backgrounds also tend to be employed in work that can’t be done remotely, such as cleaning or caring for the elderly, according to the Dezim institute for research on integration and migration.

As Germany’s Covid vaccination drive picks up speed, city authorities are stepping up efforts to try to overcome “the large reservations” held by some migrants about getting jabbed, said Katarina Niewiedzial, Berlin’s integration officer.

“There’s false information circulating” about the vaccines, she said, ranging from “‘It’s going to make me sterile’ to ‘they’re going to implant a chip'”.

She said people like the imam “with all the authority they carry” are best placed to “boost people’s confidence” in the Covid jabs.

“The impact is completely different when he uses his sermon, like he did today, to stress the need to protect lives,” she added.

Berlin has also launched coronavirus information podcasts in over a dozen languages, including Arabic, Farsi and Kurdish.

The vaccination of 18,500 refugees living in shared accommodation in Berlin has also got under way.

Sidewalk prayers

Outside the mosque in Berlin’s diverse Moabit neighbourhood, a small group of worshippers have placed their prayer rugs on the asphalt and are listening to the imam’s voice carried by loudspeakers from the prayer room.

Pandemic restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather inside the building have left them praying on the sidewalk.

The cleansing ritual, or ablution, has to be carried out before arriving at the mosque.

But Ali, 30, who comes every Friday, says he won’t let the virus curbs ruin the holy month of Ramadan for the second year in a row.

“It’s a shame we can’t have large family gatherings (to break the fast). But luckily we can have video chats with our relatives,” he says, smiling.

By Yannick PASQUET

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Could there be a new wave of Covid-19 in Germany this autumn?

It’s back again: amid sinking temperatures, the incidence of Covid-19 has been slowly rising in Germany. But is this enough to merit worrying about the virus?

Could there be a new wave of Covid-19 in Germany this autumn?

More people donning face masks in supermarkets, friends cancelling plans last minute due to getting sick with Covid-19. We might have seen some of those familiar reminders recently that the coronavirus is still around, but could there really be a resurgence of the virus like we experienced during the pandemic years?

According to virologists, the answer seems to be ‘maybe’: since July, the number of people newly infected with Covid-19 has been slowly rising from a very low level.

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), nine people per 100,000 inhabitants became newly infected in Germany last week. A year ago, there were only around 270 reported cases.

Various Corona variants are currently on the loose in the country. According to the RKI,  the EG.5 (also called Eris) and XBB.1.16 lines were each detected in the week ending September 3rd with a share of just under 23 percent. 

The highly mutated variant BA.2.86 (Pirola), which is currently under observation by the World Health Organisation (WHO), also arrived in the country this week, according to RKI. 

High number of unreported case

The RKI epidemiologists also warned about a high number of unreported cases since hardly any testing is done. They pointed out that almost half of all registered sewage treatment plants report an increasing viral load in wastewater tests.

The number of hospital admissions has also increased slightly, but are still a far cry from the occupation rate amid the pandemic. Last week it was two per 100,000 inhabitants. In the intensive care units, only 1.2 percent of all beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients.

Still, a good three-quarters (76.4 percent) of people in Germany have been vaccinated at least twice and thus have basic immunity, reported RKI. 

Since Monday, doctors’ offices have been vaccinating with the adapted vaccine from Biontech/Pfizer, available to anyone over 12 years old, with a vaccine for small children set to be released the following week and one for those between 5 and 11 to come out October 2nd.

But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has so far only recommended that people over 60 and those with pre-existing conditions get vaccinated.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Who should get a Covid jab this autumn in Germany?

“The pandemic is over, the virus remains,” he said. “We cannot predict the course of coming waves of corona, but it is clear that older people and people with pre-existing conditions remain at higher risk of becoming severely ill from Covid-19”

The RKI also recommended that people with a cold voluntarily wear a mask. Anyone exhibiting cough, cold, sore throat or other symptoms of a respiratory illness should voluntarily stay at home for three to five days and take regular corona self-tests. 

However, further measures such as contact restrictions are not necessary, he said.

One of many diseases

As of this autumn, Covid-19 could be one of many respiratory diseases. As with influenza, there are no longer absolute infection figures for coronavirus.

Saarbrücken pharmacist Thorsten Lehr told German broadcaster ZDF that self-protection through vaccinations, wearing a mask and getting tested when symptoms appear are prerequisites for surviving the Covid autumn well. 

Only a new, more aggressive mutation could completely turn the game around, he added.

On April 7th of this year, Germany removed the last of its over two-year long coronavirus restrictions, including mask-wearing in some public places.

READ ALSO: German doctors recommend Covid-19 self-tests amid new variant