Indonesia's Ramadan exodus risks spreading Covid-19 across the country

A woman puts on a face mask amid concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on April 7, 2020.
A woman puts on a face mask amid concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on April 7, 2020. AFP - CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN

Indonesia’s annual mudik (exodus), which begins with Ramadan, risks undermining the country’s efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19 as tens of millions cross the densely populated archipelago to return home. Despite an already overburdened healthcare system and the second-highest death toll in Asia after China, Indonesia has yet to declare a nationwide quarantine.

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With more than 250 million inhabitants, Indonesia is at risk of becoming a new epicentre for the coronavirus pandemic. Between the first infections at the beginning of March and April 8, 240 people have died from the effects of Covid-19 – the highest death rate in Southeast Asia – and the archipelago has more than 2,900 confirmed cases. With the onset of the Muslim holy period of Ramadan later this month, the health crisis is at risk of worsening as millions of Indonesians return to their villages and towns to be reunited with their families. 

The mudik is a yearly event in which tens of millions of migrant workers leave Jakarta and other major Indonesian cities to go home to celebrate Ramadan, which this year runs from April 23 until the breaking of the fast (Eid al-Fitr) on May 23. During this mass exodus, transportation across the island of Java, home to more than 140 million Indonesians, is typically congested; no social distancing is possible as buses and trains overflow with passengers. The annual migration poses a great risk of spreading the virus across the densely populated island and overloading the country’s already overwhelmed healthcare infrastructure. 

Jakarta has so far asked regional authorities to encourage social distancing, ordered testing kits from South Korea and asked the industrial sector to increase production of personal protective equipment (PPE).   

President Joko Widodo's administration declared a health emergency on March 31, a month after the first confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Indonesia. Widespread social distancing measures and targeted quarantines were introduced. Schools, workplaces and religious activities were closed or curtailed. And Vice President Ma’ruf Amin has asked the Indonesian Ulema Council, the nation's top Muslim clerical body, to declare this year’s mudik to be "haram", or forbidden.   

Tensions between levels of government 

Hindering unity in the fight against the virus’s spread are tensions between local governors and President Widodo. Jakarta's Governor Anies Baswedan requested a lockdown to prevent the upcoming migration but that request was denied by Widodo on Monday. Instead, governors have been granted the power to impose partial lockdowns in their own jurisdictions; Jakarta announced that a 14-day shutdown would come into force on Friday. The head of Indonesia’s Covid-19 task force, Doni Monardo, said Monday that the government fears a national lockdown would undermine its ability to help those most in need of food and medicine.  

Widodo’s administration has said the country will have enough PPE to fight the epidemic and will not have to rely on imports. Muhammad Khayam, the ministry of industry's director-general for chemical, pharmacology and textiles, has estimated that the country’s PPE production will exceed local demand. 

But Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto and the country’s medical personnel have complained that shortages of protective equipment are hindering the fight against Covid-19. The Indonesian Doctors Association has called on the government to better protect those fighting the virus, pointing out that almost 10 percent of Indonesia's Covid-19 deaths so far have been doctors or others working in the medical field. 

Two health crises in one year

Indonesia has registered an alarmingly high death rate in relation to its confirmed cases. But like elsewhere, it is likely that the number of Indonesians infected with the virus is much higher than government figures indicate due to a lack of test kits. Further exhausting healthcare resources, Indonesia has been trying to contain an outbreak of Dengue fever in the eastern part of the archipelago since January that has so far been responsible for more than 250 deaths, according to the health ministry.   

Indonesia’s leaders now stand at a crossroads, with the first night of Ramadan fast approaching. The imminent departure of tens of millions of people from major cities for towns scattered across the country poses a palpable threat, and current measures to stem the spread may not be enough. The sluggish economy and the closure of businesses has already encouraged many workers to return home. Without a serious nationwide plan – similar to the rigid measures adopted in Malaysia, China or much of Europe – Indonesia risks seeing much of its population infected.  

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