JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Indonesia's Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan said that the government decided to allow an Idul Fitri exodus during the Covid-19 pandemic, despite also appealing to the public not to do it, for economic reasons.
"Our main consideration is to prevent the economy from stopping altogether. After we calculated everything, (having no lockdown) is our best option among a number of flawed options,"Mr Luhut said during a virtual press briefing from the Presidential Palace on Thursday (April 2).
"Based on these considerations, we advised the President (…) and he agreed that (if we ban the exodus) it would affect low-income households the most."
Those who choose to return to their hometowns would however be required to quarantine themselves for 14 days and be monitored by local authorities when they reach their destination, said Maritime Affairs and Investment Ministry spokesman Jodi Mahardi.
Indonesians, nearly 90 per cent of whom are Muslim, celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, or the Hari Raya Idul Fitri festival, with a feast and new clothes, usually returning to their home villages or towns. Ramadan this year falls over April and May.
Each year, tens of millions of people in the largest Muslim-majority nation return to their home towns, an exodus known locally as "mudik".
Mr Luhut, who is also acting transportation minister, said the decision was also taken based on the government's modeling, which he said showed that the country's hot weather and high humidity would slow the virus.
"Even if we choose to prohibit people from mudik, they'd do it anyway. Therefore we decided to tell them instead that mudik will bring the disease to their families so it's better not to do it," he added.
Mr Luhut said the people who choose not to mudik would be given an as yet undisclosed amount of compensation.
Earlier on Thursday, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said there would be no official ban on mudik, asking local authorities to monitor potential virus carriers instead.
The decision was made despite calls from public health experts and regional heads for the government to impose a lockdown for "red zone" areas, such as Jakarta, to prevent the disease from spreading farther across the island of Java.
For West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil, the consequences of letting people go to their hometowns during a pandemic are real. The governor posted on his Facebook wall on Thursday a news story about a 72-year-old stroke patient from Ciamis who tested positive for Covid-19 after having contact with his child from virus-stricken Jakarta.
"This story is one of many cases of parents in West Java who are Covid-19 positive after being visited by their children or relatives, who are unaware that they are carrying the virus to their hometowns," he said. "Restrain yourselves and love your parents. Don't go home now," he pleaded.
The post is just another sign of growing apprehension among regional leaders over a possible explosion of coronavirus cases in their respective areas as millions of people from Greater Jakarta - largely deprived of their livelihood due to large-scale physical distancing policies - are set to travel to their hometowns for Idul Fitri early.
The central government still lacks a clear strategy on preventing that.
Padjajaran University epidemiologist Panji Hadiseomarto said the government's green light for the exodus was "confusing", as it contradicted the large-scale social restrictions policy announced just a few days earlier.
He said the decision would certainly widen the spread of the virus across the country.
"It'll be hard to get people to isolate themselves. If local epidemics occur in the regions, I'm sure most of the regions will be overwhelmed. If we'll see more victims of Covid-19 following the exodus, I will blame it on the government," he said.
Indonesia on Friday reported its biggest daily spike in confirmed coronavirus infections as the nation's death toll from the pandemic surpassed South Korea to become the highest in Asia after China.
The number of confirmed cases rose to 1,986 with 196 new infections reported in the past 24 hours, Mr Achmad Yurianto, the spokesman for the Covid-19 taskforce said at briefing in Jakarta.
The total number of deaths reached 181, surpassing South Korea's total of 174, data compiled by the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University showed.