Woes compounded by pandemic, economic crisis in war-stricken Syria as holy month begins

Ramadan will be more morose than ever as mosques will remain closed and families will not be able to gather due to a strict 7:30 PM curfew.
Sunday 26/04/2020
Syrian artist Aziz al-Asmar and his assistant Bachar Hamdoun paint a mural  in the town of Binnish in Syria's north-western Idlib province, April 23. (AFP)
Not the happiest of times. Syrian artist Aziz al-Asmar and his assistant Bachar Hamdoun paint a mural in the town of Binnish in Syria's north-western Idlib province, April 23. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Ramadan could not have come at a worse time for the Syrian population. The war-torn country is already cash-strapped, after almost a decade of crippling international sanctions that have resulted, among other things, in major shortages of heating fuel and electricity, leading to long and dark winters.

Six months ago, the Syrian currency witnessed its greatest devaluation in history, now standing at 1,300 Syrian pounds (SP) to the American dollar. That brought production to a screeching halt, as Syrian industrialists could no longer determine their cost and profit margins.

As factories closed, workers were laid off and the price of scarce commodities skyrocketed, devouring the funds Syrians still had in their coffers. Then came the total lockdown that started in mid-March as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 pandemic. That alone has led to the closure of any businesses that were still open, sending thousands into unemployment ahead of Ramadan.

Changing Rituals

Despite the war, the holy month had traditionally been a relatively festive period when families would gather around the supper table to break their fast. Men would then go in groups to a nearby mosque to perform the taraweeh prayer, a long-observed ritual throughout the Muslim world. This year, however, mosques will remain closed throughout the month of Ramadan and families will not be able to gather due to a strict 7:30pm curfew, which makes it illegal to go out during or after the iftar meal.

The traditional Ramadan cannon, used to signal when Muslims can break their fast, has also been muted as authorities feared its gunfire would be confused with real fire exchanges on the Syrian battlefield.

Soap operas, a highlight of Syrian Ramadan for six decades, will not be broadcast this year because of filming restrictions. Syrian producers were banned from completing the filming of their productions from mid-March as a precaution against the spread of the virus. Those who had already completed their works have been unable to sell them to Arab satellite channels because of a lack of advertisers and commercial sponsors.

Daily labourers

No official statistics have yet been released as to how many people have been laid off throughout Syria due to coronavirus, but the number is thought to be high and it includes thousands of labourers such as waiters, construction workers, bus drivers and shisha attendants who rely on daily wages to provide for their families.

The Syrian government briefly toyed with the idea of compensating each of the workers with 100,000 SP (approximately US$192) but that idea never got past the drawing board – due to a lack of surplus cash in the Syrian treasury. There is no sign that normal life will return in Syria any time soon; public bus services remain cancelled, construction work is on hold and all hotels, restaurants, cinemas and cafes remain closed.

A vicious cycle

But it is not only the daily labourers who are complaining. So are those with full-time jobs in both the public and private sectors. State employees rarely relied on their mediocre salaries to make a living, waiting instead for overtime, bonuses and rewards which have all been suspended. Meanwhile, although fixed salaries are visibly higher in the private sector, Ramadan rewards have been called off, as business owners have had no income since early March. Previously, most private-sector employees were given a one-time bonus ahead of Ramadan, in order for them to buy necessary food and items needed for the Holy Month.

That becomes all the more problematic with soaring prices, due to sharp demand ahead of Ramadan. Producers cite a variety of reasons for the price hikes, such as the crippling shortage of American dollars and frequent power cuts.

A pack of 24 eggs has increased in price from 950 SP (7 cents) just six months ago to a whopping 2,300 SP this Ramadan ($1.70). The price of one kilos of lemon, vital for making salads and nearly all meals in the Syrian cuisine, has gone from 500 SP (3 cents) in September to 1,500 SP this April ($1.1).  To appreciate what this means for Syrian salaries, we must keep in mind that the majority of public sector employees live on a minimum wage of 48,000 SP per month ($37).

“The Syrian supply chain is stunned, even without a large-scale pandemic” said Karim Tabbah, a Toronto-based Syrian business expert.

Speaking to The Arab Weekly, Tabbah explained: “Any business that wants to import products into the local market has to overcome various challenges related to payments and shipments. Syrian businesses have now also to consider new challenges related to the disruption of the global supply chain. They need to compete with companies from all over the world to secure products that have recently become scarce. They need to absorb the global increase in prices, which has affected many food commodities.”

This won’t be easy, nor will it be quick. Long bread queues are expected this Ramadan and so are lines at the supermarkets, where social distancing and COVID-19 prevention methods will rule the day.