An Indonesian volunteer wears a protective suit before spraying disinfectant at a mosque in North Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia on March 23, 2020, amid concerns of Covid-19 contagion in Indonesia. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Zick Maulana

JAKARTA – The Ramadan fasting month followed by the annual tradition of mudik – where millions of Indonesians make the late April pilgrimage back to their home towns and villages – will prove a major test of the government’s efforts to contain its fast-spreading coronavirus epidemic.

Much can still happen between now and then but the government is already at the point of calling off mudik, something it can do by shutting down or severely limiting rail and other transport services between major urban centers and the countryside.

No Mudik, No Picnic,” headlined a statement issued after a high-level policy meeting in which Covid-19 Task Force head Lieutenant General Doni Monardo was quoted as saying: “The safety of our people is the highest priority. Mudik presents a risk of contagion to the entire country.”

According to a senior government source, the meeting’s recommendation will go before President Joko Widodo on March 25, along with a comprehensive set of ideas on how to socialize the policy. “We have to treat this like biological warfare,” the source told Asia Times.

During the so-called labaran holiday each year, more than 10 million people are on the move across Java, one of the most densely-populated islands in the world with 141 million of Indonesia’s 273 million people.

While it will not be popular, the stage may have been reached by then that most Indonesians will have realized the gravity of the situation they are in with some health experts predicting a continuing and rapidly soaring death toll on the same scale as Iran and Italy.

A medical worker wearing protective gear looks out from behind a hospital tent built in preparation for dealing with a coronavirus case in Lhokseumawe, Aceh, March 17, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Zick Maulana

Indonesia now acknowledges having 790 cases. But those cases are rising by more than 100 each day and the current death toll of 58 still represents one of the highest mortality rates in the world, a sign of a health system already struggling to cope.

According to March 24 Health Ministry data, 626 of the 686 cases recorded then were on Java, including 424 in Jakarta and 125 in the surrounding provinces of West Java and Banten; the remainder were spread across 18 provinces and the special region of Jogjakarta.

The only provinces with no reported cases are Aceh, the semi-autonomous, Sharia-run province on the northern tip of Sumatra, West Sumatra, Bengkulu, Bangka and Belitung Islands, East Nusa Tenggara, North Kalimantan, West and Central Sulawesi, Gorantalo, Maluku and West Papua.

A new study by the London-based Center for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases estimates as few as 2% of Indonesia’s total infections have been reported, which would bring  the true number to as many as 34,000 – more even than Iran.

Under a worst case scenario, other modellers believe the number of cases will rise astronomically in Jakarta alone by the end of April and the start of Indonesia’s biggest holiday season, when the city’s streets are abnormally quiet.

With police on standby, ticket counters closed and religious leaders being recruited to socialize the “no-mudik” policy, the government is now making plans to improve internet services and television programming for everyone who stays behind in Jakarta and presumably in their homes.

Heeding increasingly urgent calls from clerics, much of Jakarta’s Muslim population is now steering clear of mosques, even for what is normally the obligatory Friday prayers. Elsewhere across the country, the faithful appear less concerned about being infected.

People wearing face masks attend obligatory Friday prayers at a mosque in Surabaya, East Java, on March 20, 2020. Photo: AFP / Juni Kriswanto

Prominent Islamic scholar Azyumardi Azra says it is not obligatory for Muslims to go to the mosque on the night of April 23, when Ramadan officially begins. “I think most people will pray at home,” he says. “As far as I can recall, we have never had anything like this.”

Critics say it has been difficult for the Covid-19 Task Force to make any headway because of unclear lines of authority. “If you’re going to have a task force, then it should have full authority, including over all the  ministers and senior bureaucrats,” says one experienced crisis manager.

Despite an apparent test of wills between Widodo and Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, there is little likelihood of the capital being locked down, with the president obviously convinced it is not worth the social and economic cost of cutting off Indonesia’s commercial and financial hub.

Most security specialists – and perhaps even Baswedan himself – realize it would be almost impossible to enforce a shut down anyway, given the number of access points to the city through dormitory suburbs like Bogor and Depok that are home to about three million daily commuters. 

There is talk, however, of restricting movements within the city itself, although without blocking off many major thoroughfares it is difficult to see how that can be enforced either.

Island provinces which may have given some thought to self-isolation may now be reconsidering after Widodo refused to give his approval for the lockdown of easternmost Papua province, which has only just reported its first two confirmed cases with others awaiting test results.

Papua Governor Lukas Enembe reportedly sought to close off Papua at the urging of the Papuan Customary Council, a body of indigenous leaders, and following a disturbance at Jayapura’s Sentani airport where local residents tried to stop inbound flights.

A woman wearing a face mask as a precautionary measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus walks through a market in Banda Aceh, March 24, 2020. Photo: AFP/Chadeer Mahyuddin

The president has clearly been unwilling to delegate too much authority, given his concerns about widespread social unrest as the health crisis impacts on the informal sector, which has served Indonesia well in getting through past economic crises.

While the real economy remains largely intact for now, security officials worry in particular about the 1.5 million mostly young, male motorcycle riders who freelance for the ride-hailing start-ups Go-Jek and Grab and how they might react if the economic situation worsens.

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati is working on a plan that will ensure that Go-Jek and Grab riders and other informal sector workers will still receive a daily income to help them over the crisis as part of a reallocation of social and health-care spending, government sources say.

The government is now under pressure to carry out an emergency revision of the 2020 Budget and shift more spending towards social safety nets. It is also considering a regulation in lieu of law to increase the mandatory budget deficit from 3% to 5%, but it will take a relaxation of social distancing measures for Parliament to meet and approve it.