The Jakarta Post
Epidemiologists from Airlangga University (UNAIR) in Surabaya have strongly criticized the East Java provincial administration's policy to allow mosques in Greater Surabaya to perform congregational prayers, including upcoming Idul Fitri mass prayers, saying the large-scale social restrictions (PSBB) in the area would be rendered useless by the breach.
"With the letter, the extended PSBB in Greater Surabaya and a new PSBB in Greater Malang have become useless as efforts to flatten the curve," epidemiologist Windu Purnomo, who leads a team of epidemiologists from UNAIR's public health faculty, told The Jakarta Post on Sunday.
Greater Surabaya consists of the city of Surabaya as well as its two satellite regencies, Gresik and Sidoarjo.
"It's better to cancel the two PSBBs because it will give additional burdens to the people but will be of no use in flattening the curve."
Windu said the provincial administration’s policy revealed its lack of seriousness in the mitigation of the COVID-19 pandemic using a scientific approach.
The East Java provincial administration sent a letter to Al Akbar Mosque on Thursday signed by administration secretary Heru Tjahjono on behalf of Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa allowing the largest mosque in Surabaya to hold mass prayers during Ramadan, including the upcoming Idul Fitri prayer, in accordance with physical distancing rules.
The letter stated that the same health protocols should be implemented during mass prayers in other mosques and in open spaces.
Khofifah said on Sunday that the letter was addressed only to Al Akbar mosque despite language that seemed to address all of the mosques in the province.
Khofifah, chairwoman of Nahdlatul Ulama's (NU) women’s wing Muslimat, defended the policy, citing examples of Islamic law that supported the policy.
She said the letter was preceded by suggestions from the East Java branches of NU and the Muslim Ulema Council (MUI) that requested the reopening of mosques in East Java for mass prayers.
MUI East Java secretary Ainul Yaqin told the Post that the council had requested that the government provide Muslims with a detailed map of confirmed COVID-19 cases in which the designation of green or red zones was made at a more local level – not by regency or municipality.
"Many villages in red zone regencies, for example, are still free of confirmed cases. Muslims in those villages should feel free to join mass prayers at nearby mosques," he said.
Ainul said the request was driven by the fact that the government had given permits to factories to stay in operation even in areas under PSBB.
"Factory workers go to work every day, but mosques are closed. Where can they do their daily prayers while they are not at home?" he said.
Windu, however, warned that the MUI's argument for using a smaller scale to determine whether a village was free from confirmed COVID-19 cases was dangerous, citing the government’s low testing ratio, which had likely not captured the full extent of the outbreak.
"We can rely on the government data on confirmed cases only if the government can conduct mass tests at a reasonable ratio [of the population]. Now, the testing ratio is only about 400 tests per 1 million people. So how can we determine which areas are really free of cases?" he said.
Windu said the provincial administration's loose policy had been caused by the central government's inconsistency, such as giving permits to factories to stay in operation in regions under PSBB.
East Java is the second-hardest-hit province in the country, with 2,150 confirmed cases and 211 confirmed fatalities as of Sunday. All of its 38 cities and regencies have been declared red zones, with at least one confirmed case each.
Greater Surabaya, the hardest-hit region in the province with 1,059 cases and 122 fatalities, has extended PSBB until May 25.
Meanwhile, Greater Malang, consisting of the city of Malang, Malang regency and Batu city, imposed PSBB on Sunday.
Windu said his team had suggested on May 1 that PSBB be imposed in the entire province because the virus had continued to spread.
"We suggested PSBB for the entire province before all the cities and regencies in East Java were declared red zones. The number of PDP [patients under surveillance] in East Java is very high, almost 5,000, stretching throughout the province," he said, adding that PDPs had more than a 60 percent chance of having been infected.
He said that the official case fatality rate (CFR) in East Java was one of the highest in the country at 9.81 percent, far above the national CFR of around 6 percent.
As of Sunday, East Java had 4,943 PDPs with a province-wide fatality rate of 9.59 percent, or 474 deaths. The number of people under monitoring (ODP) was 22,734.
However, Windu said the team had stopped advocating for PSBB after reading the provincial administration's letter to the mosques.
He said the team from UNAIR would continue to give advice to the government despite the unproductive policy, which was not in line with social restrictions.
"The government should conduct mass testing and make sure that those who are positive for the virus are properly quarantined," he said. "All PDPs and most ODPs must be tested."
In East Java, which has a population of about 40 million, at least 80,000 people should be tested, he said
"That equals 2,000 tests per 1 million people, a minimum ratio. The US testing ratio is 200,000 per 1 million people, and South Korea’s is 15,000 to 20,000 tests per 1 million people," he said.