SINGAPORE — The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) has extended the temporary closure of mosques in Singapore for a further nine days until 26 March.
In a statement on Monday (16 March), Muis said that after consultation with the Ministry of Health (MOH), it has assessed that the risk of a large COVID-19 coronavirus cluster forming from the participants of a large religious gathering in Malaysia continues to be real.
Five individuals confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 frequented at least 10 mosques in Singapore during their infectious period. Muis disclosed the list of the mosques on Saturday and advised members of the public who have visited these mosques to monitor their health.
Speaking at a news conference organised by Muis, Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said, "Clearly, this will not be the last time that we are closing the mosques for 14 days. There can be other occasions, whether it is to prevent spread within our community...or because there may be a coordinated effort to close everything down."
Referring to the attendees at the gathering, Masagos said, “It means that information keep evolving, and we don’t know, of these 101 people who have come back (to Singapore), whether they have been to even more than 10 mosques, but very likely, very likely so.”
Muis said in its statement, “Even with the increased pre-emptive measures and temporary closures of our mosques, it is possible for more cases to emerge through secondary transmission, either from close contacts of the five infected individuals, or from among members of the community who had visited the mosques.”
It is impossible to identify and trace all persons in the second category as the mosques in Singapore do not operate on a membership system and lacks a register of exclusive regular congregants, Muis added. “This means contact tracing will not be a sufficient measure to prevent onward transmission of the virus.”
Nonetheless, Muis is assisting the MOH to continue contact tracing and establish any links to other mosques or individuals in order to curb the spread of the virus.
Duration, intensity and density
Last Thursday, for the first time ever, Muis announced a temporary closure of all Singapore mosques for five days for disinfection. The Friday prayers on 13 March at all mosques were suspended while all mosque activities, religious classes and mosque-based kindergarten sessions were cancelled from 13 to 27 March.
Drawing on the Health Ministry’s experience of how the coronavirus spread through the church clusters, as well as the SAFRA Jurong cluster, Masagos noted that secondary infection can happen very fast through three factors: duration, intensity and density. The minister noted that this is often the case for religious activities, which typically involve close and prolonged contact among congregants.
The extension of the closure is therefore to complete one incubation period to break the cycle of transmission, and to “circuit break” it. The extended closure also means that Friday prayers on 20 March will be suspended.
The religious justification to close the mosques and suspend Friday prayers, in the form of the fatwa issued by the Fatwa Committee, still applies. Masagos added that the support from the Muslim community for the closure of the mosques has been “quite overwhelming”, given that it is based on “sound medical advice”,
Mosques will resume the azan (call to prayer), which will be adapted with a call to the community to perform prayers at home. The Office of the Mufti will work with mosques to produce more online content of Islamic learning and talks.
On the resumption of azan, Masagos, who is also Environment and Water Resources Minister, said at the conference, "From the feedback in the community, they find that the silence in the mosque is unbearable, even though they are not praying in the mosque. Therefore, we will be allowing the mosques to do the azan calls five times a day."
However, the difference is that it will be a call to the faithful to pray in their own homes - perhaps for the first time in Singapore’s history.
Enhanced measures to be put in place
Upon reopening of the mosques on 27 March, Muis will implement enhanced measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
These include conducting mandatory non-contact temperature taking for all congregants, with those unwell to be turned away; requiring congregants to bring their own prayer mats; conducting physical checks to identify at-risk congregants; implementing a full-contact tracing regimen, and not having handshakes at the end of prayers or any other physical contact among congregants.
All prayer sessions, including an abridged sermon and time for the congregants to leave the mosque, will take no more than 30 minutes. More online content, including a fuller version of these sermons, will also be rolled out.
Muis will also pilot a two session Friday prayer at four mosques across the island: Masjid Maarof, Masjid Mujahidin, Masjid Muhajirin and Masjid An-Nur. “As we learn how to operationalise this, we will do it in more mosques, and this is again to bring down the density...of the number of people at any one time congregating at the mosque,” said Masagos.
Software that can inform congregants of whether a mosque is already full will also be tested.
“This is a difficult time for everybody around the world. Everybody has to adjust. Everyone therefore must do our parts,” said Masagos, who added that social norms will have to be adjusted as part of the fight against Covid-19.
“This is how communities, whether they are Christians or Muslims or otherwise, work together to protect the community themselves, as well as the nation, and prevent community spread to everyone else.”