KONFRONTASI - Indonesia is bracing for millions of people from Jakarta, the epicentre of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, to head for their hometowns across the archipelago after President Joko Widodo
said he would not ban this year’s usual surge in travel towards the end of the Muslim fasting month in May.
The scenario would be a repeat of the way mainland Chinese residents left big cities – including Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus was first reported – to return to the provinces and travel overseas ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday in February, fuelling the spread of Covid-19
For Indonesia, which has a population of 270 million, the migration raises the stakes for a contagion that has seen 1,986 confirmed cases since the country reported its first case on March 2.
Widodo’s decision came as Indonesia reported its biggest daily spike in infections, with 196 new cases. The pandemic has killed 181 people there, surpassing South Korea’s total of 174 to become the highest in Asia after China.
The president has resisted calls from public health experts and provincial leaders to take tougher measures, including a lockdown, to stem the disease’s spread.
He instead declared a state of emergency on Tuesday and called for stricter social distancing, promising US$1.5 billion in social assistance and subsidies for low-income workers. Widodo said he would not ban mudik, the journey home for the Eid ul-Fitr holiday after Ramadan, but urged people to stay in the capital where they could get social assistance.
Widodo also warned the country’s provinces not to make their own rules and follow the policies set by the central government, a move analysts say hampers efforts to deal with the virus.
“This is confusing the people. The government is not speaking in one voice,” said Muhammad Habib Abiyan Dzakwan, a researcher from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’s (CSIS) disaster management research unit.
Iwan Ariawan from the University of Indonesia’s Faculty of Public Health described Widodo’s current measures as a “moderate intervention”.
According to a report he co-authored, Iwan said, the disease could kill close to 48,000 people across the country – but in the worst-case scenario, with no restriction on movement, there could be up to 240,000 deaths.
“We hope there will not be as many deaths as that,” he said. “The government needs to carry out more intensive interventions.”
Habib from CSIS said Widodo’s appeal would not be sufficient to stop people from making the exodus.
“A segment of society will move for sure unless the government backs up the call by raising the price [of public transport], provides incentives for residents to remain in Jakarta, reduces the frequency of public transport and imposes a health certificate requirement for them to travel,” he said.
The influential Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) on Friday said mudik was haram, or forbidden, as it could spread the “dangerous virus”, a move that could hold sway in a country where about 90 per cent of the population are Muslims.
“This is in keeping with the guidance shown by his holiness Prophet Mohammed when he forbade people to enter an epidemic zone as well as leave it,” said MUI secretary general Anwar Abbas.
Indonesia’s vice-president Ma’ruf Amin later the same day urged the MUI to issue a fatwa against mudik in the middle of an epidemic, according to local media.
For the past week, the governors of West and Central Java have been calling on migrant workers not to leave Jakarta and urging those working overseas not to return home, as they worry the exodus will hasten the spread of the coronavirus and overwhelm provincial medical facilities.
(Jft/This Week in Asia)