An officer measures the body temperature of a driver on the highway during large-scale social restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus in Pekanbaru, Riau Province, Indonesia. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Dedy Sutisna

JAKARTA – Indonesia’s government has finally lowered the boom on population mobility, shutting down air, sea and rail links for the next month in an unprecedented move to stop the coronavirus pandemic from laying waste to the archipelago.

Covering the Ramadan fasting month and the traditional Idul Fitri holiday that follows, the April 24 transport blockade is designed to prevent the spread of the virus at a critical juncture when health experts hope it will have reached a peak.

“They really are doing something now to stop mudik (the post-Ramadan exodus from Jakarta and other urban centers),” says a senior Western diplomat. “They want to show they are doubling down and they are deadly serious about stopping the pandemic.”

In a series of announcements on April 23, the Transport Ministry suspended all domestic flights and ferry operations, with exceptions for commercial cargo, medical and migrant worker evacuation, state officials, diplomats and residents of small islands.

For the first time in memory, flight restrictions will last until June 1, the sea travel ban until June 8 and long-distance, inter-city passenger trains will only start running again on May 31, a week after the end of Ramadan.

The latest action comes two days after President Joko Widodo banned all residents from returning to their home towns and villages, despite surveys showing that nearly 70% of people had decided not to participate in the annual exodus.

All public and private vehicles, including cars, motorcycles and buses, are not permitted to travel outside the Greater Jakarta area for the next five weeks, with dozens of checkpoints established on main toll roads and other access and egress points to enforce the policy and to restrict movement within the metropolis itself.

Indonesian laboratory analysts take blood samples from people during a mass rapid test amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in Jakarta, April 23, 2020. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

The government had previously prohibited civil servants, military servicemen and police officers from joining mudik, but those who were still determined to go apparently posed an unacceptable risk of spreading the virus from its epicenter around Jakarta.

The Transport Ministry falls under the portfolio of Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Panjaitan, Widodo’s right-hand man, who told this writer earlier this month that proceeding with mudik would be “catastrophic.”

The president himself had been torn between dealing with the growing health crisis, preserving his popularity among the Muslim majority and ensuring that the economy at least keeps ticking over to head off social unrest.

More and more regions have been implementing stricter social distancing, but if Jakarta is any guide there is still a significant amount of public activity and only scattered enforcement of rules on masks and gatherings.

Although there has been few signs of unrest so far, the Confederation of Indonesian Workers Unions (KSPI) called off a threatened April 30 protest after Widodo suspended parliamentary deliberation of the manpower section of the pending Omnibus Bill.

The most contentious part of the legislation deals with investor-friendly amendments to the 2003 Labor Law, which now look less likely to find favor among politicians across the board as the pandemic impacts on employment and incomes.

Some analysts believe the coronavirus outbreak is exposing the country’s yawning wealth gap, giving the low-paid underclass an opportunity to vent its frustration at the government and struggling business enterprises at just the wrong time.

The world’s fourth most populous country, Indonesia officially had 8,211 confirmed Covid-19 cases as of April 24, ranking 34th on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of 213 nations and territories with the disease.

The death toll of 689 puts it in 16th place, but the Health Ministry is having to fend off allegations that the figures are being manipulated after the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) reported an estimated mortality toll of 1,300.

Gravediggers and health workers buried the body of a Covid-19 victim at a public cemetery in Bekasi Regency, West Java province, April 4, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Aditya Irawan

The government’s credibility suffered lasting damage after Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, the president’s doctor, claimed in mid-February, before confirmation of the first case, that prayer was making Indonesia safe from infection.

Widodo has steadfastly refused to sack the minister and in the two months since then a string of senior officials, including Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil, have all cast doubts on the official figures.

Although the government has stepped up mass testing, at the current rate of 147 swab tests per million it is tiny compared with neighboring Singapore and Malaysia. Even then, people with suspect symptoms often have to be tested more than once.

“I think there’s a debate within the system about who is dying of Covid-19 and who isn’t,” says the diplomat. “ I think Indonesia will do a slow burn. It will not be on the same scale as other countries, but it will continue to rise. A lot of it will be hidden.”

Putranto has been pushed into the background since running into conflict with BNPB director Lieutenant-General Doni Monardo, the head of the Covid-19 Task Force, and other military health officials frustrated over his slow response and failure to devise a credible containment plan.

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

As it is, public skepticism remains high. One confidential study doing the rounds of the diplomatic corps, valid until April 20, calculates that in addition to the 305 confirmed victims of the virus in Jakarta, another 924 people died before they could be tested or were awaiting test results.

The same study added another 211 to the 58 confirmed deaths in East Java, 68 to the 41 victims in East Java and 196 to the 53 officially-recognized deaths reported in Central Java. In South Sulawesi, there were an extra 52 fatalities.  

“Health authorities have struggled to grasp the true scale of the pandemic, let alone determine with confidence in which areas of the country, particularly on Java island, Covid-19 is not circulating,” The Jakarta Post said in an April 24 editorial. Even with the new lockdown, that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.