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

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EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

Due to high Covid infection numbers throughout the summer, it’s now possible to get a sick note from a doctor over the phone again for some illnesses. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

What’s happened?

In spring 2020, German authorities changed the law so that people with a mild upper respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold, were able to get an incapacity to work certificate or AU-Bescheinigung by simply calling and speaking to their GP.

The rule was extended several times and finally reversed on June 1st this year due to falling infection figures. Since then people have had to go back to the practice – or do a video call if the doctor’s office has that system in place – to get a sick note.

Now, due to a decision by the Joint Federal Committee, the regulation has been reintroduced and patients can call their GP again for a sick note.

Can I get a sick note over the phone for any illness?

No. As before, the regulation only applies to patients suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Though Covid has not explicitly been named in the announcement, it seems that it is intended to be covered by the regulation.

If the doctor is convinced that the patient is unfit for work after a telephone consultation, then they can issue a sick note for up to seven days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes around doctor’s notes in Germany you should know

If the symptoms persist after seven days, the certificate can be extended once more for another week.

Why now?

According to the Chairman of the G-BA, Josef Hecken, the regulation has been introduced now as a response to rising Covid numbers and in anticipation of the cold and flu season in the coming months: “We want to avoid full waiting rooms in doctors’ offices and the emergence of new infection chains,” he said.

The telephone sick leave rule is a simple, proven and uniform nationwide solution for that, he said. The rule is also necessary because video consultation hours are not yet available everywhere.

What else should I know?

The health insurer DAK is calling for telephone sick leave in the case of light respiratory diseases to be made possible on a permanent basis in Germany. DAK’s CEO Andreas Storm said that this should “not always be up for debate, because it has proven itself.” 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The social association VdK also welcomed the reintroduction of the rule. The VdK’s President Verena Bentele said that the regulation would help to protect high-risk groups in particular from potential infections.

What are the rules to know about sick notes in Germany?

Germany has a strict system in place. If you are sick, you need to give your employer a Krankmeldung (notification of sickness) before the start of work on the first day (of your illness).

However, you also need to hand in a Krankschreibung (doctor’s note) on the fourth day of your illness. Some employments contracts, however, require you to submit a sick not earlier than the fourth day so check with your boss or HR on that point.