In the middle of the unbridled coronavirus contagion, the government has banned the Idul Fitri tradition of mudik (exodus) for the second consecutive year. Initially the ban would take effect from May 6 to 17, but then it was extended from April 22 to May 5, as well as May 18 to 24.
Understandably the government aims to prevent a spike in COVID-19 transmission and deaths after the long holiday, as happened earlier this year. On Jan. 27, less than a month after the New Year holiday, for instance, the number of infections hit a record of more than 1 million, up significantly from 670,125 on Dec. 22, 2020.
Last year the ban curtailed the number of mudik travelers from around 81 million in 2019 to 27 million, with 37 percent (around 12 million) predicted from Greater Jakarta heading mostly to Central Java.
In May 2020 the Jakarta government imposed travel restrictions, requiring an entry and exit permit (SIKM) for people leaving or entering Jakarta. At that time, Jakarta managed to curb the single-day infection rate, thanks in part to the scheme.
“The virus knows no holidays; it doesn’t care if it’s Lebaran or not [...] there is no such thing as local mudik, only virtual mudik is allowed,” said Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan last year. However, once Ramadan was over, the Jakarta government had to revoke the SIKM due to the lack of support from the central government, which did not want to hurt the economy. Consequently, the transmission increased.
Learning from the method that was proven to be effective last year, this time around the SIKM scheme should be considered sooner, rather than later. As reported in The Jakarta Post on March 26, the restriction came just too late last year. By the time it was enforced many had already traveled to their hometowns.
Unfortunately, thus far the government remains inconsistent in implementing the restrictions. On one hand it bans mudik, but on the other hand it encourages the opening of tourist destinations, which allows for the possibility of large gatherings.
In defending the policy, the government says the public places are open only to attract local people. Really? How can the local government ensure the visitors are all local residents? Worse, people lack discipline and tend to ignore health protocols, despite the looming threat of new COVID-19 variants. People’s adherence to mandatory mask wearing in Jakarta, for instance, has declined from 85 percent to around 80-81 percent.
Now we worry that greater mobility will beget an extreme upsurge in infection cases this Idul Fitri holiday unless people stay at home. The way to suppress the spike must be by applying prevention methods from the beginning of their trips, as with the SIKM policy. This way is much better than dragging people back into their original places of residence in the middle or at the end of their trip.
When people have left their cities, you need extra energy to ask them to go back home. After all the effort and beautiful imagination of gathering with fellow villagers, after setting a complex arrangement for this once-a-year big trip to share happiness with their families, now you want to turn them back? “No way.”
It would be different if they were stopped at the beginning when they are still at home. You can make them aware that there are many conditions necessary to buy tickets, with a kind of exit-and-entry permit. Long time before D-day all travelers must understand this, after wide publicity through all communication channels. This will be more accepted. “If I fail to meet all the requirements, I will not be able to buy a ticket and therefore make such enormous preparations.” Energy is not wasted.
For instance, people from India, Pakistan and the Philippines would not buy a ticket to Hong Kong, because they know that for two weeks starting from April 20 the special territory suspended all flights from those countries, preventing the spread of the new N501Y mutant COVID-19 strain.
It may sound difficult at the beginning, but those who eventually meet the requirements can and will travel comfortably without any fear of getting caught by the police on the way. During a fire, smothering the flame at the earliest opportunity is much easier than after it spreads widely.
Intention or motivation is the most immediate predictor of one’s behavior, so that plans can be dropped, so what the government must do is step up dissemination of information about the huge risks of traveling and mass gatherings in the midst of the pandemic.
We may borrow Brian Jeffrey Fogg’s Behavior Model (FBM), which suggests that behavior is composed of three factors: motivation, ability and prompting. According to this model, to change people’s behavior, they need to be motivated, have the ability to perform the behavior and need a trigger to perform the behavior. Some of the motivators include pleasure or pain, hope or fear and social acceptance or rejection.
Among the elements persuading people to engage in a certain way are time (a person needs time to behave in the expected way), physical effort (the simpler the better) and regularity of the activity. Any behavior that disrupts a routine, such as the mudik habit, is considered not simple.
But we have triggers, which can be explicit or implicit, in the forms of advertisement, warnings or other messages (from the government). One of the most important aspects of a trigger is timing: a trigger at the right time can result in behavioral changes. That is why we urge the government to enforce the ban as early as possible as the mudik ritual approaches.
A senior pulmonologist who has been desperately struggling to treat COVID-19 patients told me she subscribed to the SIKM scheme or anything that can limit mass movement and large gatherings.
The writer is a medical doctor who teaches at the LSPR Communication and Business Institute, Jakarta. The original article in Indonesian was published on kompas.com.