Indonesia bans annual holiday exodus to combat virus spread

The prohibition is based on an assessment that about 24% of people are planning trips irrespective of the virus outbreak

By BLOOMBERG / Pic AFP

JAKARTA • Indonesia banned an annual ritual of citizens travelling in large numbers to their hometowns and villages ahead of the Muslim festival of Hari Raya Aidilfitri to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

President Joko Widodo, who announced the ban at a Cabinet meeting in Jakarta yesterday, said the prohibition was based on an assessment that about 24% of people who usually undertake the holiday travel were planning trips irrespective of the virus outbreak. The government has begun distribution of food kits and rolled out other social assistance programmes this week to help the jobless and poor staying back in cities, he said.

Infections in Indonesia have quadrupled this month alone with officials saying the pandemic may peak only toward end of May in a country of 270 million people. The virus has infected more than 7,000 people and claimed 616 lives (at press time), the second-highest fatalities in Asia, even with the enforcement of some social-distancing rules for more than a month.

The lack of progress in containing the virus in Indonesia is in contrast to phased easing of lockdown measures being contemplated by other major countries to minimise the economic shock from the pandemic. Jokowi, as Widodo is commonly known, has rejected calls for a complete lockdown, citing the impact on jobs and businesses. But the president on

Monday called for a review of the lenient social-distancing rules and ordered an urgent expansion of testing and aggressive containment measures.

Healthcare experts had called for a ban on the exodus, known as mudik, as it could spread the virus to more areas from the Greater Jakarta region, the nation’s epicentre of the outbreak. Roughly one out of every eight Indonesians head home ahead of Hari Raya, the Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadhan. An estimated 19.5 million people travelled to their hometowns from big cities like Jakarta during last year’s Hari Raya, official data show.

The ban will be effective from April 24 and violators will be penalised from May 7, Luhut Pandjaitan, the acting transport minister said. Airlines, buses and other means of transportations will not be allowed to carry people to and from areas implementing stricter social distancing policy or those that have been identified as “red zones” of the outbreak, according Transport Ministry spokeswoman Aditya Wiharto. Toll roads will only be available for logistics transport, she said.

A ban on domestic flights for a week before and after Hari Raya may force people to abandon travel plans, said Rusli Cahyadi, an analyst at Jakarta-based Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

“The largest portion of people going home will use airplanes and private cars, so the prohibition policy should target primarily these two modes of transportation,” Cahyadi said. “Besides, there must be massive awareness campaign about the perils of travelling and spreading infections. Government should also impose reasonable penalties on violators.”

While the ban may hurt the economy in the short term as its weakens consumption, which makes up almost 60% of Indonesia’s GDP, it may help contain the virus faster and accelerate a recovery, according to Evan Hadiwidjaja, head of research at PT Sinarmas Sekuritas.