Amr J Alwakeel is a Respirology Fellow at the McGill University Health Centre in Quebec
As a practicing Muslim I always volunteered to be on call during Christmas and New Year holidays. I grew up in the Middle East where we didn’t commonly celebrate these holidays. Living in Canada, away from home and family, there was not much celebrating to do either. Back home our two biggest festivities were Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. Eid is the Arabic word for celebration and rejoicing. Eid Al-Fitr seals the end of our fasting month of Ramadan which this year happened to fall on the 24th of May.
I worked last Christmas and New Year, which allowed me to bank my holidays until Eid so that I could fly back home and celebrate with family. I had enough vacation days saved up for a two-week Eid trip home at the end of May. Since I have been living away from family for the past 15 years, spending Eid at home meant a great deal to me. It was usually the only time I returned home to see my parents, grandparents, nieces and nephews. I was looking forward to that quality time spent with the whole family.
Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. In February, when the CDC first announced that people should be prepared for the worst, my first thought was. “Will I be able to celebrate Eid at home?” It may seem selfish but, at that time, I did not foresee the events that were to come. Then, the storm came, but I remained hopeful that we would overcome the virus swiftly. As the tragic news from Italy started to pour in, my hopes of flying home diminished and I realized the seriousness and magnitude of this pandemic.
Ramadan came and went and then Eid was upon us: a day that traditionally starts at a packed mosque and then continues on with breakfast, lunch and dinner celebrations. The party goes on for another 2 days until you have gained back all the weight lost while fasting during Ramadan. Not to mention, we also receive our Eidiya, a customary monetary gift given by the family elders to the younger generation of the family. Despite me being a 30-year-old physician, I still enjoy getting an envelope from my Dad with my Eidiya gift.
This year Eid was far from traditional with the cloud of COVID-19 looming over us. On the most social day in the Muslim calendar, my wife and I had to resist the urge to socialize with others in person and we socialized virtually instead. Eid day started by attending the zoom mosque prayers followed by a zoom Eid party with family back home. Having a zoom meeting with over twenty family members is chaotic to say the least. Most adults could barely get a congratulatory word in, while the kids showed off their new clothes and toys. I was happy, sad, excited and frustrated all at once. Despite these mixed feelings, seeing my family still meant a lot to me.
After the zoom celebrations were over my wife and I felt somewhat lonely. I considered celebrating Eid with one of my best friends who was also at home with his family. But then I thought to myself that it was quite unlikely that his four-year old daughter would easily maintain a two-meter distance. If she was an asymptomatic carrier from her daycare, could she infect me and then I would end up infecting my colleagues and patients at the hospital? I certainly did not want to end up being the source of a nosocomial outbreak. I also wondered about celebrating with one of my Muslim colleagues who I saw every day at the hospital behind a shielded surgical face mask, but again I decided against that. I was afraid of taking any small risks that could lead to my patients getting sick. I contemplated the advice I have been persistently giving my patients for the past three months about the importance of proper social distancing. How could I preach such measures if I could not do it myself? Also, I felt guilty celebrating knowing many others are struggling with the loss of loved ones and loss of livelihood.
I spent much of my life training in medicine but my evidence-based training was not able to provide easy answers now. The feeling of uncertainty, not uncommon for medical practitioners, was overwhelming and frightening. Deep inside I knew that the only way to deal with my emotions and comfort my anxious mind was by doing what I felt was right for my patients: ensure that I would minimize any risk of my own exposure to the virus to help protect my patients and colleagues. So, this Eid, I decided to have a low-key social-distance-abiding celebration with my wife. As we sat by a still and quiet lake, my heart was full of hope that humanity will prevail and that the next Eid will be celebrated in social proximity.
The author would like to thank Mrs. Mishkat T Hafiz (Concordia University, Montreal, QC, Canada) for assistance with editing and reviewing the text.