Coronavirus: Indonesian maids in Singapore cancel trips back home for Hari Raya

Indonesian helper Sri Sunarni with her employer Veronica Ng. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Indonesian maid Sri Sunarni will not be returning to her hometown of Boyolali, in Central Java, to celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri next month.

Like millions of Indonesians working overseas, the 46-year-old had to shelve her plans after President Joko Widodo on Tuesday (April 21) declared a ban on mudik, the annual tradition of people returning to their home villages during the Ramadan fasting month ahead of Hari Raya holidays, to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

In a Facebook post, Mr Joko cited various studies, including a Transportation Ministry survey, which showed that many people still wanted to travel home despite the pandemic which has killed 616 people in Indonesia as of Tuesday.

"I have asked the relevant government officials to make preparations related to the mudik ban," he posted.

It was not immediately clear what sanctions would be in place for the ban which takes effect on Friday, the start of the fasting month. Hari Raya is on May 24.

The ban came as no surprise to Ms Sri, who had already discussed with her family on WhatsApp about the situation and they agreed to put Hari Raya celebrations on hold until it improved.

"Spending time with my loved ones is certainly a precious moment but at this time, my health and life are more valuable," she told The Straits Times.

However, she was saddened by the thought of being away from her elderly parents, two children and two grandchildren.

Choking back tears, she said that it felt like her heart had been "chopped to pieces" because she could not be with them.

More than 2.5 million people have been infected by the coronavirus around the world and at least 165,000 have died. Amid the pandemic, nations have closed their borders, airlines have suspended flights and governments, including in Singapore and Indonesia, have imposed stricter social distancing measures to slow down the rate of infection.

In Indonesia, a vast archipelago which is the world's most populous Muslim country with 270 million people, the death toll has soared to around 600 and the ban on mudik was the subject of heated debate for weeks.

The government had earlier said a ban would hurt the economy but public health experts and regional administrations warned that it was necessary to prevent Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, from spreading from Jakarta, the epicentre of the outbreak, across and outside of the main island of Java.

Earlier this month, Manpower Minister Ida Fauziyah appealed to Indonesians overseas not to embark on the mudik. In a video posted on the Indonesian embassy's Facebook page in Singapore, she said: "I understand you miss your parents, I understand you want to meet your family, but now, your safety and health as well as your family surpass everything."

There are 250,000 Indonesians living and working in Singapore, including 127,000 domestic workers, embassy figures show.

While official data on how many Indonesians actually make the trip home is unavailable, The Straits Times understands the figure is in the thousands.

Indonesian maid, Ani Rustiati, 47, who has worked in Singapore for 21 years, has also decided to postpone her trip home to Sukabumi city, in West Java.

"We need to keep our minds open. I'm not the only one affected, everyone is struggling. If I were to return to Indonesia, will I be able to come back to Singapore? I still need this job in Singapore."

"I feel safer here too. I know the Singapore government is taking this virus seriously," she added.

Indonesian Ambassador to Singapore Ngurah Swajaya has thanked the Singapore government and employers for the good treatment of Indonesian domestic workers in these trying times.

He sought the understanding of employers to allow the workers to fast and pray during Ramadan as well as provide sufficient rest for them.

"We have advised our domestic workers to stay in the house during their days off, to continue exercising good hygiene and to postpone their trip back home for the Hari Raya holiday," said the envoy.

Many Singapore employers, who typically pay for the return flights of their Indonesian maid, said they had no issues putting off the holiday, even as late as December.

Ms Ani's employer, Frenchman Ivan Espenom, a 47-year-old financial director, said: "No problem at all. We will just have to work out something and organise ourselves."

Agreeing, Ms Sri's employer, Singaporean Veronica Ng, a 29-year-old business development manager, said her helper would get a well-deserved break on Hari Raya. Ms Ng said: "She cannot go home for Hari Raya but we will still consider it her holiday. She is very kind, always asking if we need her help during her days off, but we will tell her 'No, you rest'."

For now, Ms Sri will have to put her plans to celebrate Hari Raya with her 150 extended family members on the back burner.

Showing photographs of past celebrations on her mobile phone, she said: "When the situation gets better, I can go home and we can then hold a big party."

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