Coronavirus: Fear of spread persists as pilgrims go home after Tabligh event in Indonesia cancelled at last minute

A police officer wearing a protective suit sprays disinfectant at a mosque in Makassar, Indonesia, on March 16, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - Organisers of a large religious gathering in Indonesia's South Sulawesi province scheduled to begin on Thursday (March 19) were convinced by the authorities to cancel it at the last minute.

But fears of a coronavirus spread persisted, as more than 8,000 Muslim pilgrims, including more than 400 from the region and countries as far as Saudi Arabia, had already assembled in the provincial town of Gowa, 1½ hours' drive from Makassar, the largest city in the country's east.

The pilgrims are on their way home on Thursday via Makassar airport and seaport, escorted by police and local officials.

The cancellation of the Ijtima Jamaah Tabligh gathering comes just two weeks after a similar meeting held in Malaysia involving about 16,000 people led to more than 500 cases of coronavirus infections.

Dr Agus Wibowo, the spokesman for the Indonesia disaster management agency (BNPB), confirmed that more than 8,000 Muslims have arrived in Gowa to attend the gathering that was supposed to take place from Thursday to Sunday.

Among the largest groups of foreign Muslims who reached South Sulawesi's Gowa are those from Thailand, Malaysia and Pakistan. The gathering is organised by Tabligh, formally known as Tablighi Jama'at, a global movement of evangelical Muslims that promotes proselytising, known as dakwah.

Separately, the authorities failed to get organisers to cancel a planned gathering to inaugurate a new Catholic bishop in the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara on Thursday.

BNPB head Doni Monardo, who has been appointed by President Joko Widodo to lead efforts to prevent wider spread of the coronavirus, sent a letter to the organisers of the East Nusa Tenggara gathering, requesting that they postpone the gathering. The content of the letter was shared with the media.

"The number of Covid-19 victims keeps growing. The spread is not by the patients in hospitals, but by the infected people who did not show symptoms. They are (Covid-19) carriers who potentially infect others around them," Mr Doni said in his letter.

Indonesia, which has seen a rise in coronavirus cases, has been having a hard time convincing its citizens to practise social distancing and avoid crowds.

The world's fourth-most populous country reported on Wednesday a total of 19 deaths from the coronavirus, the highest number of fatalities in South-east Asia, overtaking the Philippines, which has recorded 17 deaths so far.

The number of confirmed cases also surged to 227 with 55 fresh cases on Wednesday, the highest single-day jump for new infections since the country announced its first two cases on March 2.

The government's appeals to work from home and temporarily avoid places of worship have been criticised by a vocal minority.

Former armed forces commander, retired general Gatot Nurmantyo, said people should not shun mosques in a post on his Instagram account, which has about half a million followers.

He said: "Muslims have forgotten that mosques are the safest place to be protected from any kind of disaster.

"There have been appeals against going to mosques, as if the mosques were the source of the spread of Covid-19. What about shopping malls, elevators… churches, Buddhist temples? Are they 'safer' than mosques?"

Mr Gatot had reportedly played the religious card in a short-lived attempt as a presidential hopeful in 2019 but failed to find any backing. Indonesia is home to the world's largest Muslim population, who account for more than 85 per cent of its citizens.

Indonesia has yet to roll out massive tests for coronavirus, as it is now preparing equipment and gathering test kits from South Korea, Singapore and China, The Straits Times understands. The government has not disclosed how many test kits it has received in total.

The Malaysian religious event, held from Feb 27 to March 1, drew 16,000 followers.

Both gatherings in Indonesia and Malaysia were organised by members of Tablighi Jama'at.

The head of Gowa regency, Mr Adnan Purichta Ichsan, posted on social media late on Wednesday that organisers had "finally agreed" to postpone the event.

"We did not stop communication and coordination with the core committee," he said, adding that pilgrims would be isolated while arrangements are made for them to leave Gowa.

About two-thirds of Malaysia's more than 700 infections have been traced to the meeting at a mosque complex on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the capital.

Tiny neighbour Brunei has confirmed 50 infections linked to it, while Cambodia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have also said citizens were infected there.

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