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Jakarta Post

COVID-19: 'Mudik' risks mass contagion across Java

  • Marchio Irfan Gorbiano and Sausan Atika

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, April 3, 2020   /   08:16 am
COVID-19: 'Mudik' risks mass contagion across Java Precaution: A heath worker, accompanied by a security officer, checks the temperature of a traveler near the border between Serang and Pandeglang in Cadasari district, Pandeglang regency, Banten, on Thursday to help contain the spread of COVID-19. (Antara/Muhammad Bagus Khoirunas)

For West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil, the consequences of letting people go to their hometowns during a pandemic are real. The governor posted on his Facebook wall on Thursday a news story about a 72-year-old stroke patient from Ciamis who tested positive for COVID-19 after having contact with his child from virus-stricken Jakarta.

“This story is one of many cases of parents in West Java who are COVID-19 positive after being visited by their children or relatives, who are unaware that they are carrying the virus to their hometowns,” he said. “Restrain yourselves and love your parents. Don’t go home now,” he pleaded.

The post is just another sign of growing apprehension among regional leaders over a possible explosion of coronavirus cases in their respective areas as millions of people from Greater Jakarta — largely deprived of their livelihood due to large-scale physical distancing policies — are set to travel to their hometowns for Idul Fitri early.

The central government still lacks a clear strategy on preventing that. Just hours before Ridwan made his plea, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced that he would not officially ban people from traveling for the Idul Fitri holidays, ignoring warnings from public health experts that the consequences of failing to prevent people from leaving Jakarta, the epicenter of the outbreak in the country, could be dire.

Read also: Some 70,000 Indonesians could be infected with COVID-19 before Ramadan, scientists say

Annually, some 20 million people from Greater Jakarta travel to their hometowns to celebrate Idul Fitri in a tradition called mudik (exodus). The tradition, public health experts say, could lead to massive COVID-19 contagion on Java, an island of 141 million people, where many regions have far worse healthcare systems than Jakarta.

“[The President] underlines that there is no official ban on people going on the mudik during the 2020 Idul Fitri holiday period. The travelers, however, must self-isolate for 14 days, will be given ‘people under observation’ [ODP] status, as per the World Health Organization health protocol, and will be monitored by the respective local administration,” presidential spokesman Fadjroel Rachman said in a statement on Thursday, shortly after a speech by the President on the matter.

State Secretary Pratikno, however, later clarified Fadjroel’s statement, saying that the President actually called on people to stay in the capital, though he did not categorically state that the President would ban the mudik.

A revised statement from Fadjroel was not redacted to retract the original one.

Number of travelers during Idul Fitri exodus in IndonesiaNumber of travelers during Idul Fitri exodus in Indonesia (JP/Hengky Wijaya)

Speaking in a teleconferenced Cabinet meeting on Thursday, Jokowi said the government had advised people not to go back to their hometowns for Idul Fitri, so as to contain the spread of the virus, which has killed at least 170 people nationwide. But he stopped short of banning people from doing so.

His refusal to ban the mudik has surprised many, but it falls in line with the main strategy he adopted to fight the virus, which is one of large-scale social restrictions. The President has ruled out any form of lockdown, be it a closure of regional borders or a strict restriction of people’s movement, saying that such a drastic policy was not suited to the characteristics of Indonesians and would severely hurt businesses.

But despite his refusal to isolate cities, the President still wanted regional leaders and his ministers to devise ways to discourage people from the exodus this year.

The Jakarta administration, he said, had proposed that 3.6 million people in the capital be included in social safety nets to keep them from leaving. The President himself said he was open to adjusting the dates of the Idul Fitri public holiday for people who would not be able to return to their hometowns for the annual exodus.

As some people would still be able to leave Jakarta, Jokowi also instructed authorities at the subdistrict and village level in the regions to tighten surveillance, saying that local authorities could also use village funds to act as a local social safety net. “I would like to encourage participation at the community level, be it through neighborhood units [RT] or community units [RW], so that travelers [returning to their hometowns] from Greater Jakarta can be given ODP status,” said Jokowi at Bogor Palace, West Java.

Meanwhile, Jokowi’s large-scale social restriction policy has created public confusion. On Wednesday, the Transportation Ministry issued a circular outlining restrictions on transportation to and from Greater Jakarta, sparking speculation that the government was ready to ban people from leaving the capital.

It was later clarified that the circular was just a recommendation and that Jakarta and its satellite cities should send a letter asking the Health Minister to allow them to impose wide-scale social restrictions, known as PSBB, to restrict transportation services.

Read also: Governor Anies calls for greater authority to handle COVID-19 epicenter

The Jakarta administration had made a request to stop intercity bus services to and from Jakarta on Monday, but it was rejected by acting transportation minister Luhut Pandjaitan after Jokowi turned down the capital’s request for a lockdown.

On Thursday, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan said he would make that request even though he had earlier claimed that Jakarta had already imposed PSBB.

“Today, we will send a letter to the health minister asking for the minister to immediately approve the PSBB for Jakarta. What we need from the central government is to grant us the status, so that we can issue regulations [with regard to COVID-19 handling],” Anies said in a virtual meeting with Vice President Ma’ruf Amin.

He suggested that the PSBB for Jakarta apply also to surrounding cities, saying that the outbreak affected Greater Jakarta areas.

Anies had issued a circular asking interregional buses to temporarily halt operations starting Monday in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19 to other regions.

“We were worried about people’s mobility from Jakarta to areas outside the capital. Hence, we issued the circular because of the high risk of spreading the disease [to other regions]. This needs to be a concern for the central government.”

Padjajaran University epidemiologist Panji Hadiseomarto said the government's green light for the exodus was "confusing", as it contradicted the large-scale social restrictions policy announced just a few days earlier. He said the decision would certainly widen the spread of the virus across the country.

"It'll be hard to get people to isolate themselves [...]. If local epidemics occur in the regions, I'm sure most of the regions will be overwhelmed. If we'll see more victims of COVID-19 following the exodus, I will blame it on the government," he said.

— Ardila Syakriah contributed to this story.