Indonesians pray at the Istiqlal Grand Mosque in Jakarta, March 20, 2020, after the announcement from the capital city's authority to cancel the obligatory prayers for two weeks amid Covid-19 concerns. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

JAKARTA – It is now dawning on the world’s largest Muslim population that it is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus because of the social intimacy that goes along with mass prayers held five times a day for the faithful and the way extended families interact on a daily basis.

The government’s entreaties for Indonesians to practice “social distancing” is a concept many have found difficult to grasp as the virus spreads across the archipelago through community transmission, bringing an unusually high rate of deaths in its wake.

Confirmed Covid-19 infections in Indonesia hit 514 on Sunday (March 22), second to Malaysia among Southeast Asian nations. Achmad Yurianto, the government’s spokesman for coronavirus updates, announced ten more virus deaths on Sunday, taking the toll to 48.

Indonesia now has the third most fatalities in Asia after China and South Korea.

Last week, The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security put Indonesia’s mortality rate at more than 8%, the highest in the world ahead of even more widely infected Italy, Iran, China, Japan and Spain.

Comparisons are likely meaningless with the world’s fourth most populous country, where 88% of the citizenry is Muslim. But according to the British daily The Independent, up to a quarter of the 55 Britons to have died from the disease have been Muslims, who make up just a 5% minority.

The Indonesian government also has to deal with the unpredictable behavior of its people, with some going to considerable lengths to protect themselves from the virus while others seem unconcerned.

People wearing face masks against the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak at obligatory Friday prayers at a mosque in Surabaya, East Java, on March 20, 2020. Photo: AFP/Juni Kriswanto

Despite President Joko Widodo urging people to “work at home, study at home and pray at home,” many affluent Indonesians took that as an invitation last weekend to flock to Jakarta’s Ancol beach and the popular mountain resort of Puncak, south of the capital. 

In recent days, thousands of car-owning shoppers have emptied the shelves of a major retail stores selling foodstuffs and other daily necessities, when many suburban supermarkets have been almost empty of customers.

With a lockdown still not on the cards, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan has declared a state of emergency for the next fortnight, urging the closure of all non-essential businesses, limiting public transport and temporarily shutting all bars, spas, movie theaters and other entertainment places.

On Tuesday, the quasi-officialIndonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), the country’s top Muslim clerical body, issued a fatwa under which Muslims living in areas where Covid-19 is rampant are freed from their obligation of taking part in Friday prayers.

“The fatwa should be a guide for the government to take action and map areas where the disease has spread uncontrollably,” said fatwa commission chairman Hasanuddin Abdul Fatah. “The government is the one with the competency and authority in this matter.”

The dictate fell short of imposing a nation-wide prohibition, saying Muslims could still perform Friday prayers at mosques in “less affected” areas. But the slow government response and the shortage of testing makes those areas difficult to pinpoint.

In Jakarta, where 70% of the deaths and 60% of overall cases have been reported, Baswedan went further than the MUI and sought to ban all religious gatherings for the next two weeks, including Friday prayers and Sunday church services.

Indonesians pray at An-Nur mosque in Yogyakarta on March 20, 2020, even though the government has called not to hold Friday prayers amid contagion fears of the Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Rizqullah Hamiid

The March 20 edition of the Tempo newspaper carried the headline “Ibadah di Rumah” (Pray at Home) and a giant caricature of the governor beating on a hollow bamboo bidug, or drum, which, before the advent ofmicrophones, were used to call Muslims to prayer.

Many of Jakarta’s mosques appeared to comply with the ban. In the devout East Jakarta district of Kramat Jati, for example, the call to prayer over one mosque’s loudspeaker was followed by a stern instruction to stay at home to pray.

“The Prophet knew all about pandemics,” the cleric told his flock, repeating Muhammad’s time-honored advice: “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”

Not all Indonesians have obeyed, however. A second mosque in the same area went ahead with Friday prayers, without any effort by authorities to stop it. Another mosque closer to the center of Jakarta, which has leaned towards radical conservatism in recent years, also held prayers as usual.

Reluctant to order more draconian measuresbecause of their potential social and economic impact, Widodo has now directed an all-out rapid-testing campaign that experts have long said is the only way to tell how far the pandemic has spread in this archipelagic nation of 273 million.

Rapid tests can reach a much wider cross-section of the population because they require only blood serum as a sample and can be performed at all medical laboratories. But they still need affective follow-up measures, including isolation for positive cases and extensive contact tracing.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays at the Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, in a June 5, 2018 file photo. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum
Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays at the Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, in a June 5, 2018 file photo. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum

Indonesian officials initially persuaded themselves that the virus is not quite so virulent in a tropical climate. While that may be valid up to a point, it led to complacency and, in some cases, to laughably misleading statements by officials.

Former military commander Gatot Nurmantyo, once a presidential aspirant, has become the latest target of ridicule after tweeting, in a strange twist of logic, that Indonesians should flood local mosques just to show they are not a breeding grounds for the virus.

Indonesia has about 900,000 to one million mosques, many of which are community gathering points as much as a focus of religious devotion. Churches and temples serve a similar purpose, especially where devotees are in the minority.

Vulnerable older people, many with underlying health issues, will not be able to self-isolate when they already live in close quarters with their children and often their grandchildren in over-crowded areas of Jakarta and other large cities.

“Rural communities are quite homogenous and they don’t travel a lot,” says Yenny Wahid, the late president Wahid Abdurrahman’s daughter and head of the Wahid Institute think tank. “So the chance is slimmer of contracting the virus. Plus they go out in the sun more and eating habits are simpler.”

Many devout Indonesians, already afraid of doctors and generally ignorant of the workings of the human body, were at least initially reluctant to allow Covid-19 to come between them and God.

“We are more afraid of God,” remarked one of the organizers before the government finally persuaded a global proselytizing movement to call off a gathering of 8,000 Muslim pilgrims from Indonesia and other parts of Asia near the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar.

An official sprays disinfectant ahead of Friday prayers at a mosque in Jakarta on March 13, 2020, to fight against any spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

Their reluctance to shut down was all the more astonishing when a similar gathering of 16,000 Islamic missionaries near Kuala Lumpur two weeks earlier has been traced to half of the 900 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Malaysia; Indonesians made up a large chunk of the 1,500 foreign attendees.

Indonesia’s Christians have been equally guilty of lapses in Covid-19 related judgement. On the day the Makassar event was called off, 1,500 Indonesian Catholics assembled in a cathedral in Christian-majority East Nusa Tenggara for a long-planned ordination of a new bishop. 

Taking in the islands of Flores and Sumba and the western half of Timor island, East Nusa Tenggara is one of 22 of 34 provinces which says it is still free of the virus, a claim that in the absence of any systematic testing looks increasingly threadbare.