JAKARTA • Indonesians have turned to smugglers and bogus travel documents to get around the ban on an annual end-of-Ramadan exodus that could send coronavirus cases skyrocketing in the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation.
Thousands are using any trick in the book to reach their home towns in time for celebrations at the end of the holy fasting month, a festival known as Aidilfitri.
"It is a critical moment," said Mr Doni Monardo, head of the Covid-19 mitigation task force. "I'm afraid people who go to other regions will come back infected and all of our efforts will be wasted."
Every year, millions pack into airports, train stations and sea ports in a mass migration similar to China's Chinese New Year holiday.
The government last month slapped a ban on domestic sea and air travel and set up roadblocks to stop the cross-country movement.
It later relaxed those rules over concerns about a collapse in Southeast Asia's biggest economy, but only for those who could prove they were virus-free and had a professional reason to travel.
That loophole was not lost on Mr Kamal and his wife, who obtained a fake certificate for their daughter, a university student in the capital Jakarta - the country's virus epicentre. With the help of friends, the couple managed to obtain a government-agency stamped letter that claimed their daughter was hired to distribute pandemic supplies in their home town Makassar in Sulawesi.
"We're very worried about her health if she stays in Jakarta," said Mr Kamal, who asked that his real name not be used. "But the most important thing is that we miss her so much. We want to celebrate Aidilfitri together like in past years."
Police are battling a tide of fake travel documents being sold online and through word of mouth, with the authorities in Bali recently arresting seven people suspected of peddling bogus papers.
Markets have also been packed with shoppers buying food and clothes. Some mosques are expected to draw big crowds despite official calls to pray at home.
Widespread social distancing violations have generated a slew of angry responses - under the hashtag #WhateverIndonesia - from social media users fed up with fellow citizens' blatant rule breaking.
But that has not done much to convince the people playing a cat-and-mouse game with police by hiding inside vehicles, under tarpaulins slung over the back of trucks - or even, reportedly, inside a concrete mixer.
The company I worked for laid off drivers like me... So I only had two options - stay in Jakarta with no money or go back home.
LAID-OFF JAKARTA BUS DRIVER MAULANA ARIF BUDI SATRIO, 38, who became a local media sensation after he claimed to have made the 500km journey to his home town Solo on foot after his car was turned back at a checkpoint. The trip earned him an official scolding - and quarantine - when he arrived at his destination.
The authorities have nabbed hundreds of drivers paid to smuggle travellers. "We're not trying to make their lives difficult. This is all meant to reduce the spread of coronavirus," said Jakarta police spokesman Yusri Yunus.
Indonesia yesterday confirmed 949 new cases, taking the country's total to 21,745. There were 25 new deaths, taking the toll to 1,351 - the highest in Asia outside China.
But the figures are widely believed to be much higher in the country of more than 260 million, where testing rates have been among the lowest in the world.
Laid-off Jakarta bus driver Maulana Arif Budi Satrio became a local media sensation after he claimed to have made the 500km journey to his home town Solo on foot after his car was turned back at a checkpoint.
Whether the 38-year-old had vehicular help along the way remains an open question. But the trip earned him an official scolding - and quarantine - when he arrived at his destination.
"The company I worked for laid off drivers like me," he said.
"So I only had two options - stay in Jakarta with no money or go back home."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS