Police officers wearing a protective mask checks the number of passengers in a car at a checkpoint in Semarang, Central Java Province, Indonesia on April 27, 2021. Indonesia banned an annual ritual of citizens traveling in large numbers to their hometowns and villages ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the worlds largest Muslim-majority country. (Photo by WF Sihardian/NurPhoto) (Photo by WF Sihardian / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

JAKARTA – India’s second-wave Covid-19 disaster appears to have reinforced the Indonesian government’s determination to strictly enforce the official ban on mudik, the culturally sacred Muslim homecoming exodus that follows the fasting month of Ramadan.

Announced last month, the ban will stay in effect from May 6-17, during which authorities will block 333 main access points in strategic locations and prohibit all sea, air and land transport services from carrying passengers, with sanctions for violators ranging from stiff fines to jail terms.

Exceptions will only apply to logistics services, inner-city transport in Jakarta and seven other largest cities, official travelers and those on family emergencies or urgent business carrying travel permits and a negative Covid-19 test result. 

Although a similar ban was imposed last year, it was not properly enforced and many home-goers either slipped through gaps in populous Java’s secondary road network or left metropolitan areas for their hometowns and villages well before it went into force.

This time, the government has warned that thousands of police, military and district officials manning arrival gates, rest areas and highway checkpoints will turn around long-distance travelers who have no valid reason for being on the road.

“What makes it different is the government is comparatively better prepared to face the challenges, based on lessons learned,” said Covid-19 Task Force spokesman Wiku Adisasmito, asserting that daily infections and deaths are now “under control.”

But in pointing to a recent “alarming” development, in which several districts have had their classification changed from orange to red zones, he said the government was determined to prevent the sort of spike in cases that has followed almost every holiday in the past year. 

“We believe we have been able to reduce the intentions of people to go home by about 80%,” Tourism and Culture Minister Sandiaga Uno told foreign correspondents on Friday. “But even 20% is a lot of people. We’re going to make (the restrictions) even tighter.”

A police officer speaks to a motorcyclist while checking documents at a checkpoint in Semarang, Central Java Province, Indonesia on April 27, 2021. Photo: WF Sihardian/NurPhoto via AFP

Comparisons with India are inevitable. The Narendra Modi government’s decision to allow the annual Kumbh Mela and Rath Yatra religious festivals to go ahead, coupled with the refusal of political parties to call off rallies for state elections, are cited as the cause of a massive explosion of cases among the majority Hindu population.

With Muslim devotees at similar risk, Saudi Arabia has already said that only immunized worshippers can perform the year-round Umrah pilgrimage. It is unclear, however, whether the policy will again be extended to the annual Haj pilgrimage in late July.

If so, it will be the second successive year that 250,000 Indonesian Muslims have been prevented from performing what for many is a once-in-a-lifetime religious duty, often waiting more than a decade for their names to come up in the Haj quota.

Despite that, 101 overseas Indonesians have died of Covid-19 in Saudi Arabia, followed by the United States with 26 and all other countries in single digits. Although 610,000 Indonesians live in the Saudi kingdom, compared to 510,000 in the US, most are badly-treated migrant workers.  

The disparity in the death toll doesn’t surprise Muslim intellectual Azyumardi Azra. “Many Indonesians are living in miserable conditions and don’t get medical treatment,” he says. “Some are illegal because they’ve run away from their employers.”

So far, Indonesia has officially recorded 1.66 million infections and 45,300 deaths since the start of the pandemic, but there has been a steady fall in new cases from a peak of 14,500 in late January, following the year-end holiday, to a daily average of about 5,500.

Daily deaths across the country have dropped from 476 in late January to a current level of 160 to 180, still troubling for officials worried about a sudden new resurgence in cases over the post-Ramadan period when more than 30 million people are usually on the move.

It has been estimated that in normal years travelers spend as much as US$10 billion on the annual Lebaran, or Eid Al-Fitri holiday, providing a major boost for the country’s rural economy, which has taken a major hit since the pandemic.  

Java’s heavily populated six provinces and two special municipal regions, encompassing Jakarta and Jogjakarta, account for about 1.1 million Covid cases and 30,300 deaths, with East Java having by far the worst infection-to-death ratio of 7.2%.

Tombstones at a burial site for victims of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Jakarta on September 11, 2020. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

The Covid-19 task force recently pointed to a surge of informal workers leaving Jakarta prematurely, along with a corresponding increase in new cases in several regions.

Other loopholes may be opening. Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, a former chairman of the mass Muslim Organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), recently asked the task force to make an exception for pesantren (Islamic boarding school) students.

Although they are at a lower risk of infection, that adds up to about four million children who would still have to travel by organized public transport under strict health protocols.

Health authorities have reported Covid-19 clusters among the staff of many pesantren, particularly in rural areas. Last year alone, NU listed the deaths of at least 207 clerics from 110 of its boarding schools, a number which is believed to be steadily increasing.     

The task force has yet to respond to Amin’s request, nor to Bali’s plea to be excluded from the ban. Balinese authorities fear it will leave the resort island without the domestic tourists who have played a small role in keeping the economy from shrinking even further than last year’s -9.1%.

If the central government relents, and that looks unlikely at this stage, they anticipate the number of visitors to the Hindu-majority holiday island could rise from the current 4,000-6,000 to more than 10,000 a day.

“Homecoming is different from traveling because they (domestic tourists) only come to Bali for a vacation,” says vice-governor Tjokorda Oka Artha Ardhana Sukawati. “We have already been open for tourism since June 2020, so no special preparations are needed.” 

Minister Uno has been talking with Singapore, China, the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and, until recently, India, about the possibility of opening up travel bubbles with Bali and south Sumatra’s Bintan and Batam islands by June or July, depending on the Covid situation.

A Balinese temple priest receives a dose of Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine during a mass vaccination program in Ubud, Gianyar, Bali, Indonesia on March 16 2021. Photo: Johanes Christo / NurPhoto via AFP

Health officials aim to prioritize the inoculation of 2.8 million of Bali’s 4.3 million population and about 700,000 in Batam and Bintan, normally popular destinations for nearby Singaporeans, in an effort to achieve herd immunity for those areas over the next three months.

But that already looks overly ambitious. Seventh highest among Indonesia’s 34 provinces with 44,400 infections, Bali is still recording about 160 new cases and 10 deaths a day, mostly in Denpasar and in the western coastal districts of Badung and Tabanan. Total fatalities stand at 1,327, including just five foreigners.

Overall, Indonesia has given one or two shots to 19.2 million of the 181 million people targeted for vaccination, most of them with vaccine supplied by China’s Biotech Sinovac, which Health Minister Budi Sadikan says is keeping pace with a delivery schedule of 125.5 million doses by the end of the year. 

But an unexpected block on the delivery of 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from crisis-hit India, one of the main producers, has forced a slowdown in daily inoculations, falling from 500,000 to 200,000-300,000 over the past fortnight.

According to Health Ministry data, Indonesia secured firm orders this year for 47 million doses of AstraZeneca, 44 million doses of Novavax, 50 million doses of Pfizer and 11.5 million COVAX vaccines through Gavi, a global vaccine alliance.

But updated figures show supplies of AstraZeneca and COVAX falling far short of that target, with the ministry listing Sinovac as an optional supplier for a further 57.3 million doses in October-December and 57.4 million doses in the first quarter of 2022.

What recently caused some alarm was a statement by George Fu Gao, head of China’s Centres for Disease Control, drawing attention to the low protection rate afforded by Sinovac and Sinopharm, a second Chinese vaccine distributed to 31 nations.

The rare admission went viral on social media before China’s censors took down the comments and Gao himself hastily backtracked, saying his remarks had been misinterpreted and were only meant as a call to improve the efficacy of the vaccines.

A medical worker shows China’s Sinovac Biotech Covid-19 vaccine at a public health center in Jakarta, on January 15, 2021. Photo: Aditya Irawan / NurPhoto

Adisasmito told Asia Times that Sinovac presented “more benefits than risks,” noting that it had passed clinical trials, both domestically and abroad, and that there were no other available drugs or drug management alternatives with which to launch the vaccination program.

Mostly reserved so far for health and other high-risk workers, public servants and the elderly, the vaccine has also passed the scrutiny of the National Drug and Food Agency (BPOM), though the World Health Organization (WHO) has yet to issue recommendations on its use.

The WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of experts indicated last month that Sinovac had levels of efficacy ranging from 50.6% to 83.5% in trials in Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia that are compatible with WHO requirements, but it is unclear why it has taken the global health body so long to make a final decision.