Indonesia Bans Exodus for Eid

Leaky last-minute prohibition on return to hometowns

By: Ainur Rohmah

The Indonesian government, which has officially banned the exodus of millions of Ramadan-bound residents from the Jakarta conurbation, is having trouble enforcing the ban, with local media reporting that transit stations were packed with passengers attempting to leave after they had lost their jobs because of Covid-19 and no longer had savings to survive in the capital.

The government banned mass gatherings and imposed so-called "large-scale social restrictions" in early April in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus to the sprawling Jakarta area, which covers 4,990 sq km and is home to 31.65 million people but waffled until the last minute on whether to ban mudik, as the annual return home is called. President Joko Widodo first said he would seek to coax people to remain in the capital, but finally capitulated and ordered the ban on April 21.

Despite that, hundreds of thousands have left for their rural homes. Data from the Ministry of Transportation show that at least 900,000 from Jabodetabek, the combined name of the five cities that make up the capital, have already left the city.

Given a combination of government dithering, religious fundamentalism, a substandard health system and a country spread over 17,000 islands, Indonesia is rapidly developing Southeast Asia’s worst coronavirus crisis. Government spokesman Achmad Yurianto told a reporter that public flouting of recommendations on social distancing and other restrictions has resulted in 7,775 cases, with 647 deaths, the region’s highest although testing remains among the world’s lowest of major nations. Nearly 196,000 are under observation with more than 18,000 under surveillance because of suspected coronavirus.

In some cases, citizens' disobedience in carrying out social distancing is also influenced by religious conservatism, which makes it even more difficult to deal with outbreaks. A recent viral video shows several men inside a mosque calling for worshipers to continue to pray and ignore social distancing calls, saying prayer would protect worshipers.

The leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) Rizieq Shihab recently called on Muslims to continue to pray together in so-called green status areas where the pandemic has not yet been detected. He also did not forbid Muslims from worshiping in mosques in red-status areas as long as they continued to pay attention to Covid-19 protocols.

Around 150 persons belonging to Jemaah Tabligh, a movement that exhorts Muslims to return to practicing their religion as it was during the prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, were isolated in a West Jakarta mosque after three of their friends tested positive. The three are known to have participated in a mass Tabligh Akbar in Malaysia between February 27 and March 1 in which hundreds were infected. Some 242 Jamaah Tabligh members were also isolated in another mosque in North Jakarta, after 13 members of the group tested positive.

Every year, millions of people from big cities in Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, perform what is called mudik, the return to their hometowns to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Islamic fasting month, with their families. The government previously only banned civil servants, police, military officers, and state-owned companies' employees from performing homecoming, but not with other community groups.

Mudik was banned effective from today, April 24 for those who live in Jabodetabek. These areas have implemented Large-Scale Social Restrictions (PSBB) and are categorized as the Covid-19 red zone. The policy is accompanied by distribution of social assistance in the form of food, material, and money to those who are not going home. Police have begun to guard at least 19 points in Jakarta and their surroundings and blocked the movement of vehicles in three toll lanes to try to prevent the entry or exit of passenger vehicles. Transport vehicles carrying logistics or food are still allowed to pass.

No private vehicles, buses, trains, passenger ships, and airplanes can leave or enter Jabodetabek or other PSBB areas except ambulances, trucks carrying logistics, and vehicles related to essential services. People can still travel inside the urban area. The suspension of all domestic and international flights — commercial and charter— is effective from April 24 to June 1 except for presidents and state officials, foreign guests and representatives of countries or international organizations, and cargo or passengers related to Covid-19.

"In the initial stages of the ban, the government will prioritize persuasive methods, namely between April 24 and May 7. Those who violate will be told to return," said Transportation Ministry spokesman Adita Irawati. After that period, the government will give full sanctions and fines to those who carry out violations.

A recent survey by Indo Barometer indicated city-dwellers prefer to perform mudik despite the coronavirus outbreak in a desire to gather with family in the village (40.8 percent), hope that conditions are better (19.7 percent), are homesick (17.1 percent), no longer have jobs (11.8 percent), their villages are nearby (6.6 percent), and wish to observe a once-a-year tradition (3.9 percent).

President Widodo said the mudik ban was based on an estimate by the Ministry of Transportation that up to 24 percent of Jabodetabek residents – an estimated 7.6 million – would go home anyway, 68 percent wouldn’t and 7 percent – about 2.2 million – had already left.

"The figure (24 percent) is very large," Jokowi said. "So we will ban going home for all (people),"

The University of Indonesia's Faculty of Public Health (FKM UI), estimated that if mudik were to go ahead, as usual, it could increase coronavirus infections on the island of Java, Indonesia’s most populous, to 1 million by May 23 – Eid al-Fitr – if 20 percent or 6.5 million residents return to their hometowns for seven days.

"Cumulatively, the number of cases will increase to one million in May to June on Java – outside Jabodetabek- because travelers will return to their villages and become carriers," said Pandu Riono, an FKM UI team member, Pandu Riono.

If the 6.5 million don’t go home, based on the modeling, May and June total positive cases on Java outside Jabodetabek would only reach 770,000, while the total positive cases in the conurbation itself could reach 240,000.

"If people from Jabodetabek do homecoming, then (the virus) will spread in all areas including villages, where health services are very limited," said Pandu, an epidemiology expert.

Health services in Indonesia are far from evenly distributed. According to the World Health Organization, the country has only one hospital bed for every 1,000 people, the lowest in Southeast Asia. It only has four doctors for every 10,000.

The FKM UI team also predicts that if the government implements a medium scale intervention, the number of patients infected with Covid-19 in Indonesia is predicted to reach 1.3 million people with more than 47,000 deaths, whereas a high-intensity intervention would result in only 600,000 with 12,000odd deaths.

High-scale interventions include massive coronavirus testing with a large number of participants, and implementing mandatory and binding rules regarding maintaining physical and social distance.

Indonesia has been criticized for its lack of numbers and slow testing, with unknown numbers of patients dying before test results were known. According to the Ministry of Health data, Indonesia had tested only 48,647 specimens as of April 24, a small figure compared to its population of around 270 million.

The government has recently imported 18 swab test kits or Polymerase Chain Reactions (PCR) and is targeting testing up to 10 thousand specimens per day.  But the Special Staff of the Minister of Health Alex K. Ginting was pessimistic that the target could be achieved given the unavailability of reagents or fluids that could detect genes in the virus, as well as the limited number of laboratories and experts to operate the test kits.