Ramadan lanterns in Cairo Image Credit: Reuters

The coronavirus pandemic is cutting off the world's 1.8 billion Muslims from their cherished Ramadan traditions as health officials battle to ward off new infections during Islam's holiest month, haunted by multiple outbreaks traced to religious gatherings around the world.

Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting, overnight festivity and communal prayer and giving, begins with the new moon this week and comes in the middle of the worldwide debate over when and how to lift virus restrictions. Keeping the faithful healthy during the entire month poses a whole new challenge.

The virus has already disrupted Christianity's Holy Week, Passover, the Muslim hajj pilgrimage and other major religious events.

"Ramadan is coming, and people have nothing to eat,'' said Afghan daily laborer Hamayoon, who goes by only one name. "The government must have some mercy on us and allow people to work at least half a day to be able to feed themselves.''

U.S. President Donald Trump is pushing for a swift nationwide reopening, Vietnam and New Zealand moved Thursday to end their lockdowns and European leaders were gathering via video later Thursday to try to reinvigorate their virus-crippled economies.

The coronavirus crisis is far from over, however, and the threat of new outbreaks looms large. German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed dismay Thursday, criticizing some states for moving "very briskly, if not to say too briskly'' in trying to reopen their economies.

"We're not living in the final phase of the pandemic, but still at the beginning,'' Merkel warned ahead of the European Union summit. "Let us not squander what we have achieved and risk a setback. It would be a shame if premature hope ultimately punishes us all.''

Germany has been praised for its proactive approach to the pandemic, testing widely, shutting down citizens' movement and achieving a much lower reported death toll, at 5,315, than other large European nations.

As Muslim leaders announce the official start of Ramadan, governments are trying to balance health protection with traditions and many have closed mosques or banned collective evening prayers.

In addition to Ramadan's sunrise-to-sunset fast, families and friends gather for large festive meals at sunset, worshippers go to mosques for hours of evening prayers and communal meals are organized for the poor.

Authorities in the capital of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority nation, on Thursday extended to May 22 its strict disease-fighting restrictions _ covering the whole holy month. Turkey banned communal eating during the holiday and banned Ramadan drummers marking the times for fasting from going door-to-door to collect tips.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan bowed to the country's religious clerics, refusing to close the mosques despite a warning from the Pakistan Medical Association that such gatherings are like a petri dish to spread the virus in a country that has a fragile health care system.

Egypt's Grand Mufti Shawki Allam said Thursday that healthy Muslims have a religious obligation to fast despite the global pandemic _ but said coronavirus patients would be "the most eligible'' for an exemption.

U.S. authorities have also struggled to reconcile religious freedom with stemming the virus. A federal judge said he will deny a bid by three Southern California churches to hold in-person church services during the pandemic, saying that government's emergency powers trump what in normal times would be fundamental constitutional rights.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Muslims to "focus on our common enemy _ the virus,'' and repeated an earlier appeal for an immediate cease-fire for all conflicts.

The U.N. also warned that more than 135 million people were at acute risk of starvation even before COVID-19 appeared. The virus is making that situation worse, leading to massive lines for food banks from the Texas city of El Paso to the Paris suburbs, and hitting Africa especially hard.

"On one hand, the lockdown and lack of jobs, and on the other hand, Ramadan is coming and the prices for all food items have gone up. It is a huge problem for the people," shopkeeper Noor Alam lamented in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

The EU has pledged 20 billion euros ($22 billion) to provide help to vulnerable communities globally. EU leaders were holding a virtual summit Thursday to take stock of the damage the coronavirus has inflicted on the bloc's own citizens and to thrash out an economic rescue plan.

Merkel warned: "It's a long journey" We can't run out of stamina and air too soon.''

Meanwhile scientists are reporting new signs that the virus was circulating in the population earlier than initially thought. Two people with the coronavirus died in California as much as three weeks before the U.S. reported its first death from the disease in late February, which may have led to delays in issuing stay-at-home orders.

In China, authorities reported no new deaths and just 10 new cases on Thursday.

China has reopened many businesses. Middle and high school seniors preparing for exams are returning to classes. But a ban on foreign arrivals and strict quarantine measures remain to prevent an influx of new cases from abroad or fresh infections.

The coronavirus has infected more than 2.6 million people and killed over 183,000, including more than 45,000 in the United States, according to a tally compiled by John Hopkins University from official government figures.

The true numbers are undoubtedly far higher, since testing is limited and methods vary for counting the dead. While most people suffer from only mild or moderate symptoms, the elderly and the infirm have been hardest hit by the virus.

The head of the World Health Organization's Europe office said Thursday that up to half of the coronavirus deaths across the region have been in nursing homes, calling it an ``unimaginable tragedy.'' Europe has seen over 115,000 people die in the pandemic, according to the Johns Hopkins tally.

Dr. Hans Kluge said a "deeply concerning picture'' was emerging of the impact of COVID-19 on long-term homes for the elderly, where care has "often been notoriously neglected.'' Kluge said health workers in such facilities were often overworked and underpaid and called for them to be given more protective gear and support, describing them as the "unsung heroes'' of the pandemic.

To help people in Belgium's capital bear their coronavirus lockdowns, a "love bus'' is traveling the streets and broadcasting personal voice messages to those stuck at home.

"We miss you a lot. Big kisses!" trumpeted one message to 82-year-old Asuncion Mendez from her great-grandchildren. As Mendez looked out from her Brussels balcony, a huge smile spread across her face.