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Coronavirus

Indonesia bans holiday exodus from Jakarta as Ramadan begins

Domestic and international air, sea and rail travel prohibited through May

Muslims pray at a mosque in Indonesia's Aceh Province on Thursday without taking social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Every year, Kastari and his family leave Jakarta for their hometown Brebes, a town in central Java, for Idul Fitri, an Islamic holiday at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

This year, however, things are different for Kastari as he marks the start of Ramadan on Friday.

The communications consultant company he works at told the 27-year-old graphic designer to work from home, and cut his salary to quarter of the regular amount. His parents were told to close their food stall near a wet market in East Jakarta as the Indonesian capital, the national epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, began widening social distancing measures earlier this month.

So Kastari and his family decided to leave for Brebes a few weeks before Ramadan even started.

"We rent a house in Jakarta and it's not as spacious as our home in Brebes," Kastari told the Nikkei Asian Review. "It's also more relaxing in our hometown because the village is not so crowded and, even though social distancing measures have not been imposed yet here, people are already refraining from going out. Also, everything is more affordable."

Last year, 19.5 million people took part in the annual exodus, known as mudik -- the majority of whom traveled out of greater Jakarta. But fears of an accelerating spread of the virus prompted the national government to impose a ban on mudik travel to people in Jakarta and its vicinity from Friday.

As of Thursday, Indonesia had reported 7,775 cases, the second highest in Southeast Asia after Singapore. Early mudik prompted by social distancing measures and loss of income in greater Jakarta is believed to have contributed to the spread of infection, now detected in all of the sprawling archipelago's 34 provinces.

More concerning is Indonesia's health care capacity, which is one of the lowest in the region and seen partially responsible for the 8% fatality rate -- one of the highest globally. Much of that capacity is concentrated in Jakarta and a few other major cities, so a wider spread to smaller towns and rural regions could easily overwhelm their even more underequipped health care facilities.

A family in North Sumatra province, Indonesia, eat ahead of Ramadan fasting that started on Friday.   © AP

A mathematical model by a team of researchers from the University of Indonesia's school of public health suggests that if mudik goes on as usual, the cumulative number of cases requiring hospitalization on Java island alone could reach 1 million by mid-June -- 25% higher than without mudik. The team earlier projected that only 2% of actual infections have been detected in the country.

These are much higher than figures released by the government's COVID-19 task force. Wiku Adisasmito, a health expert on the task force and a professor at the same university, said last week that the coronavirus crisis is likely to reach its peak in Indonesia in May, with 95,000 cumulative confirmed cases.

The government earlier prohibited mudik only for civil servants and members of the police and military, while urging others not to take part. Some regions, meanwhile, have tried to discourage travellers by mandating a 14-day quarantine policy for new arrivals.

But the persuasion seems to be failing.

Some fresh studies suggest a significant number of Indonesians have left or are planning to travel to their hometowns during Ramadan. This prompted President Joko Widodo to finally ban the mudik travel from the greater Jakarta area, going into effect at midnight Friday. Passenger vehicles are not allowed in or out of the region through May 31. A similar ban that applies to rail, sea and air -- domestic and international -- transport will extend to June.

"Please don't travel, don't mudik. Don't let ourselves infect others, or get infected by others that could happen... at any point along our trips," government spokesman Achmad Yurianto said in a televised press briefing on Thursday. "Because if we're asymptomatic or show only light symptoms [of coronavirus infection], we could unknowingly infect our relatives in villages."

But mudik is just one of the risk factors for the spread of coronavirus during Ramadan. Bazaars commonly pop up in many places in the late afternoon, and family or friends gather during fast-breaking time when the sun sets. The Islamic holy month typically sees mosques more crowded than usual with people attending tarawih prayers every evening and or staying overnight.

Many mosques in greater Jakarta and some other major cities have already closed their doors for congregations in recent weeks to avoid becoming a new infection cluster. But smaller mosques in a lot of smaller towns are harder to control, with some Muslims still chanting, "Don't be afraid of corona. Be afraid of Allah."

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) last month issued a fatwa, or a religious edict, against congregating at mosques in "high risk" areas. MUI deputy chairman Abdullah Jaidi, while announcing the start of Ramadan along with the religious minister on Thursday evening, reminded people that the fatwa also applies during the fasting month.

"Let's follow the government's directives regarding social distancing measures, as well as MUI's directives to perform tarawih and the Friday prayers at each of our own homes," Jaidi said.

"And regarding mudik, let's delay it until after the situation gets better. Because as the Prophet [Muhammad] said, if you're in a plague-stricken area, don't leave it as it could affect your brothers in other places. You're saving your brothers [by staying] -- that's a very noble deed."

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