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Fears grow of Covid-19 surge as Indonesians celebrate Eid al-Fitr

Tough enforcement of travel restrictions is needed if Indonesia is to avoid an India-type crisis

Fears grow of Covid-19 surge as Indonesians celebrate Eid al-Fitr

Indonesian shoppers visit a clothing market in Bekasi in West Java on May 9 ahead of Eid al-Fitr. (Photo: AFP)

The relatively controlled growth rate of Covid-19 in Indonesia, which has seen a gradual decline, may not last long as most citizens in the Muslim-majority nation are about to celebrate Eid al-Fitr.

Known locally as Lebaran, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, this season features the decades-long tradition of mudik (exodus home) and silaturahmi (visiting relatives). Before the pandemic, we could see millions of people returning homes from cities where they work to celebrate the festival with their relatives.

So, why should we fear it? It’s simply because the massive movement of people has proved to be a primary factor that multiplies the number of infections, just as happened last year. This year the situation is much more heart-pounding as the new B.1.617 coronavirus variant — first identified in India last year and now ravaging the South Asian country — has been discovered in Indonesia.

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In 2020, Indonesia’s government issued a travel ban by land, sea and air. Even though it curbed the number of people going home for Eid celebrations, a spike in new infections was recorded two weeks after the holiday ended in almost all regions.

Last year’s situation was exacerbated by a lack of knowledge about the virus, the government’s flip-flop policies and the many people ignoring health rules.

Indonesian authorities this year imposed a travel from May 6-17, intending to completely stop people from moving around during Eid.

If this comes true, it will be disastrous, undermining all efforts to stem new infections

It was not difficult to ban people from taking flights, trains or other public transport as they are fully under government control. However, little did the government realize that before the travel ban was imposed, many people had already left the cities unmonitored.

Luckily, in recent days, police were able to stop hundreds of thousands of motorists, forcing them to return to their places of origin. Shockingly, based on random tests conducted at the scenes, more than 4,000 were positive with Covid-19. It’s scary because the number is certain to be higher as many motorists evaded police surveillance.

A survey conducted by pollster Indicator Politik Indonesia released early this month revealed that while most people supported the travel ban, an estimated 36 million insisted on going home regardless of the ban.

If this comes true, it will be disastrous, undermining all efforts to stem new infections.

President Joko Widodo has called on all Muslims to be prudent and not go home this year to help the nation’s speedy recovery from the economic downturn.

In the past two months, the government has managed to flatten the Covid-19 curve, with average daily infections dropping from a staggering 12,000 early this year to about 6,000.

Though it doesn’t save Indonesia’s face from being the worst-hit country in Southeast Asia, it’s a good sign after a deep economic contraction since the third quarter of last year.

Widodo has often begged the people to support and cooperate with the government to end the pandemic and boost the economy. The president’s call became much more relevant in recent weeks as stories spread of the “Covid-19 tsunami” in India after its government allowed religious festivals to go ahead.

Government officials, social influencers, critics and religious leaders have used India’s crisis to raise public awareness. They called on people to follow health restrictions and stay home during Eid al-Fitr or risk Indonesia becoming like India.

The sad thing is that many Indonesians prefer listening to conservative preachers rather than the health authorities. Controversial cleric Tengku Zulkarnain told his followers that Covid-19 does not exist and claimed he would not be infected with the virus. Ironically, Zulkarnain died of Covid-19 on May 10.

What can be done to prevent pilgrims from becoming super-spreaders?

Many religiously conservative Indonesians claim they are more afraid of God than human-made rules such as travel bans or health protocols.

Despite restrictions, more than 187,000 people flocked to Jakarta’s largest commercial center Tanah Abang last week to buy Eid al-Fitr clothes and other needs. In other regions, the number of people visiting shopping centers, restaurants and places of worship was countless.

The situation is predicted to remain the same until the peak celebration on May 13. What can be done to prevent pilgrims from becoming super-spreaders?

Prohibition of going home or visiting relatives during the peak event will only be effective if the central and local governments have one voice.

There should be no missing link in the implementation of the travel ban. It should not be limited to people moving from cities but also imposed at local level. People should be banned from traveling to neighboring towns or villages. Neglecting this tough action could drag Indonesia back to the early days when it struggled hard against the disease.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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