Health workers check the body temperature of a passenger who had just arrived at the arrival terminal of Mutiara Sis Aljufri Airport, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia on April 14, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Basri Marzuki

JAKARTA – Domestic worker Narni Nikmaturromar is someone Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his government will appreciate: this year she won’t be taking her three young sons on the traditional post-Ramadan pilgrimage from Jakarta to visit her farming parents in the southern Sumatran province of Lampung.

Struggling to homeschool her boys, Narni is among the 56.2% of citizens in a recent Indonesian Institute of Social Sciences (LIPI) survey who say they will stay put for mudik, the annual exodus to home towns and villages which is scheduled to take place at the end of the fasting month on May 23.

Ominously, however, 43% said they would venture home. And that, according to a study by the University of Indonesia’s health faculty, risks spreading more than one million new infections across the hinterland of Java island alone, presumably by residents who are currently asymptomatic – just at a time when it was hoped the worst of the pandemic will have passed.

Although the researchers did not indicate how they calculated the dire projection, it appears to have been partly based on government estimates that 7% of the 30 million people living in the Greater Jakarta area – the epicenter of the pandemic – would soon be on the move out of the metropolis.

Government leaders are waking up to the realization that any new wave of infections, in June and July, would come at just at the time when it is hoped the worst of the pandemic will have passed.

A US Center for Disease Control (CDC) graph of the Spanish flu pandemic shows the second of three waves of infections in late 1918 claimed by far the most lives. In Indonesia, the official death toll was 1.5 million, although new studies into that pandemic suggest the figure was as high as 4.3 million.

Java, home to about 160 million of Indonesia’s current 273 million population, has borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic with 4,413 of the 5,516 confirmed cases and 400 of the 496 deaths across its four provinces and two special municipalities as of April 16.

A child rides her bicycle in front of a coronavirus mural n Depok, Indonesia, April 16, 2020. Photo: AFP via Andalou Agency/Anton Raharjo

Most of those – 3,537 cases and 329 deaths – have been concentrated in Jakarta and the surrounding provinces of Banten and West Java, from where most of the post-Ramadhan travellers will journey to their destinations in tightly packed buses and trains.

Central and East Java have a total of 876 cases and 80 deaths, followed by the 10 provinces of Sumatra with a collective 280 cases and 33 deaths. The rest of Indonesia, including the big islands of Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku and Papua, have combined recorded only 43 fatalities from 685 infections, according to official figures.

Perhaps unwisely worried about his popularity duringsuch a testing time, Widodo refuses to use the word “ban” in reference to mudik, which wasthe main topic once again when he held a video teleconference with his ministers on April 16.

But in a typical Javanese two-step, the president has removed Idul Fitri from the list of official holidays this year, a designation employers will have to abide by, and has now instructed the Transport Ministry to cancel all extra train and bus services out ofJakarta.

He has also been helped by the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), still nominally headed by Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, which issued a fatwa forbidding mudik from areas infected by Covid-19, which has now spread in sharply varying degrees to all 34 provinces.

Civil servants, military officials and police personnel have already been banned from travelling during the post-Ramadhan period and officials say the annual leave will now be moved to cover the entire month of December. It will not be called mudik.

A soldier assists a man to put on a face mask as they are distributed to the homeless amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in Banda Aceh on April 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin

“It is not impossible, perhaps by next week or later, the government may decide against mudik,” Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Panjaitan told reporters earlier this week. “If the flow of people doesn’t subside, we can put a halt to it.”

On his Facebook page, Widodo urges people to self-isolate and to reconsider their holiday plans, saying he will be monitoring the impact of a social safety net package for the newly-unemployed. The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) worst case scenario for Indonesia projects 24.7 million could be out of work by the end of this year.

The partial lockdown of Jakarta’s 9.6 million population imposed last week has now been expanded to the 6.7 million people living in the dormitory cities of Bogor, Depok and Bekasi, many of whose workers make the daily commute to jobs in the capital.

In fact, the government got a taste of what might happen during the May exodus when the state railway sought to reduce the number of suburban trains running on the 70-kilometer route between Bogor and Jakarta. The result: packed carriages for the entire commute.

Adherence to tight new social restrictions has been spotty. On one street corner in downtown Jakarta this week, dozens of motorcyclists from two ride-hailing and delivery companies were observed huddled together, all without masks, in defiance of a rule that gatherings should be limited to five people.

The Health Ministry, its credibility already in tatters after earlier efforts to play down the seriousness of the health emergency, only added to public skepticism this week by revealing two previously undisclosed categories of suspected Covid-19 cases.

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

Those include 139,000 people classified as ODP, or under surveillance, and 10,500 tagged as PDP, or under supervision. Recent travel abroad is a common red button for both categories, but while the symptoms for ODP are high fever, those for PDP are some form of lung infection.

That suggests patients listed as PDP receive priority for swab testing and are candidates for the daily update of confirmed cases, which is now increasing by up to 400 nationwide a day, still relatively small comparedto other harder-hit countries.

“Right now, everything is a blur because there are so many cases,” says one medical expert, explaining that patients in the PDP category also include those whose symptoms do not need urgent treatment and who are directed to stay home.

This may well explain a recent spike in burials reported by city officials in recent weeks. Given the scarcity of reliable data, it is possible a significant number of PDP patients have suffered relapses and died at home before they could be tested or even while they were awaiting the results of their tests.

What is clear is that Indonesia is now paying a high price for its initial slow response to the pandemic. Lying at the far end of the global supply chain, the country has only four days’ supply of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) kits and reagents it needs to meet the president’s demands for 10,000 Covid-19 swab tests a day.

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, Indonesia on March 17, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Zick Maulana

Widodo has finally realized that a lack of transparency is spurring speculation over how bad the pandemic may be, with the government’s Covid-19 task force admitting there are wide discrepancies between central and regional government data.

Information on the potential economic impact of the pandemic, however, is on full display as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warns that the world economy is facing its steepest decline since the Great Depression, which for those who experienced it were the worst years of their lives.

The IMF figures Indonesia’s economic growth will plunge to 0.5% from a four-year low of 5.02% in 2019, while the government estimates that 3.78 million Indonesians will fall into poverty and up to 5.2 million will lose their jobs before the virus is contained.