COVID-19 SPECIAL

Coronavirus: West Java governor calls on Jakarta residents to stay home during Ramadan

A vendor wearing a face mask in Jakarta, Indonesia, on April 3, 2020.
A vendor wearing a face mask in Jakarta, Indonesia, on April 3, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JAKARTA - The governor of West Java has warned of an explosion in the number of coronavirus infections and said the return of tens of thousands from the capital to their villages in the most populous province in the country is complicating his efforts to bring the deadly Covid-19 outbreak under control.

Already, rapid testing for the virus has uncovered 677 probable cases of the coronavirus, which causes Covid-19, in the province.

Those tests - nasal and throat swabs - are now waiting "in a queue" for confirmation in Jakarta. Official data on Sunday (April 5) put the number of cases in the country at 2,273.

But, as testing ramps up in other parts of the country, Governor Ridwan Kamil expects the tally to soar.

"My personal opinion and my logic are saying that it is a multiple of what is announced," Mr Ridwan said, referring to the likely number of confirmed cases once testing has been done.

Complicating matters is the exodus of likely virus carriers from the capital to villages and towns across the country ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan, which begins later this month.

Already, 70,000 people have left the capital - the epicentre of the outbreak in the country, accounting for half the cases - after President Joko Widodo urged local officials to close restaurants, mosques and schools in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, Mr Ridwan said.

"Mudik is critical," he said in an interview with The Straits Times, referring to the annual pilgrimage home for the fasting month by millions of Indonesians.

"I can control the situation better without mudik."

But Mr Ridwan stressed that he agreed with Mr Joko, who has so far refused calls for a lockdown. Last week Mr Joko said he was mulling over the declaration of an extended holiday later in the year when the epidemic has abated.

"Not every lockdown is a success," Mr Ridwan said. "We are afraid of repeating the Indian model."

 
 

India's experience of a nationwide stay-at-home order left millions stranded in big cities like New Delhi with no job or place to stay.

Instead, Mr Ridwan is seeking help from religious leaders. The governor spoke this week with Vice-President Ma'ruf Amin, seeking his help to persuade the country's top clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema council, to lift the fatwa compelling Muslims to return home during Ramadan.

"In a super emergency - there is nothing to eat for example - then forbidden things become allowable," Mr Ridwan said.

"People will follow more what the Ulema say, (rather) than our suggestions as a government."

In a 45-minute interview over the teleconferencing platform, Zoom, Mr Ridwan cited specific instances where families were infected by relatives returning home, including an incident that emerged on Saturday where a man returned to his family in Cianjur only to infect three other members of his household.

Mr Ridwan is not the only local leader worried about contagion in communities due to returnees.

Mayor Rizal Effendi of Balikpapan told The Straits Times that at least one person in his city of half a million in East Kalimantan had died from Covid-19 and two more remain in isolation.

In Pekalongan, a city with a population of 311,000 in Central Java, Mayor Saelany Machfudz said he had banned large gatherings like weddings and set up temperature checks at bus stations after a suspected Covid-19 patient died last week in hospital.

"Of course we're worried about mudik," Mr Saelany said.

"We're doing what the central government asked."

Last month, West Java province bought 100,000 rapid test kits from South Korea, and has so far distributed more than 63,000 of them to 21 cities.

Carparks of stadiums in Depok and Bekasi have been converted into drive-through testing sites for public health officials.

The rapid testing effort found that 300 police cadets at an academy in the hilltop town of Sukabumi likely had the virus.

That was also the case with more than 220 worshippers at a Catholic church in Bandung. The mayor of Bogor and the vice-mayor of provincial capital Bandung have also been stricken by Covid-19.

Government data shows that West Java has 252 confirmed cases of the coronavirus so far.

With nearly the same population as South Korea, the province hopes to follow that country's lead by eventually testing 300,000 of its residents.

 
 
 

"West Java is rolling out testing in a systematic way and other provinces are following suit," said analyst Kevin O'Rourke, author of the Indonesia intelligence brief, Reformasi Weekly.

"The tests are cheap and easy to do and help find groups of people who no longer have to worry about the virus and can potentially work on the front line, as in the case of health workers."

The province is readying a 3.2 trillion rupiah (S$280 million) welfare package that will dole out 500,000 rupiah worth of food and cash aid to every household in the province.

Another 16 trillion rupiah has been set aside to pump-prime the local economy once the crisis has passed.

Despite the rapid spread of the virus, Mr Ridwan expressed hope that disciplined social distancing would bring the virus to heel by June, adding that he expected a rapid recovery in the economy next year.

"The country can bounce back by next year," he said.

"Let's focus on saving lives."

With additional reporting by Imam Shofwan and Steven Handoko