Nivell Rayda, Jakarta – Train stations and airports in Jakarta were packed with travellers making a last-ditch effort to leave the capital city, with the government set to impose another ban on Thursday (May 6) on the annual exodus to other provinces marking the end of Ramadan.
The government fears that Indonesia will see a surge in COVID-19 infections if millions of people are allowed to travel from the cities to their hometowns to celebrate the Idul Fitri holiday.
The ban on the mass migration, known as Mudik, will be enforced from midnight on May 6 until May 17. The authorities have pledged to beef up enforcement actions at the checkpoints.
Meanwhile, epidemiologists have criticised the ban for being too brief, adding that the short period will defeat the purpose of curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
According to train company Kereta Api Indonesia, around 15,000 people have been leaving Jakarta via the two main inter-city stations every day since last week. The two stations are in Senen and Gambir.
Normally, around 5,000 people leave Jakarta via the two stations every day.
When CNA visited the Senen station on Tuesday, there was a snaking queue of passengers waiting to undergo COVID-19 rapid testing.
At the other end of the station were passengers waiting in an open-air lounge for their trains to arrive. Seats were limited, with some being marked with red tape due to social distancing rules. This resulted in many sitting on the floor next to their luggage and cardboard boxes filled with clothes as well as gifts for their loved ones back home.
"My family has been pressuring me to go home. I miss my parents and my siblings. I only see them once a year during Idul Fitri. I have to go home to see them," Mdm Ayu Sulistyo who came to the station with her six-year-old son Rama told CNA.
Mdm Sulistyo said her husband is travelling by motorcycle so that the family would have a means of transportation during their time in their hometown in Central Java province.
Jakarta's Soekarno Hatta airport was also packed with travellers. Airport officials said there have been between 40,000 and 60,000 passengers each day as the Mudik ban nears.
"I didn't go home last year, so I have been dying to physically meet my parents and relatives this year," Mdm Natasya Tiara who was travelling to South Sumatra with her family of five told CNA.
'We will monitor all roads big or small': Police
During last year's ban, there were people who tried to dodge the police at checkpoints. Some were caught hiding in truck containers or bus luggage compartments.
An engineer who only wanted to be known as Trisno told CNA that last year he managed to leave Jakarta by travelling on small and less monitored village roads. He intends to do the same this year.
"I will just try my luck. If we get caught and are ordered to head back to Jakarta, we will comply. There is no harm in trying," said the 56-year-old.
Personal vehicles that attempt to travel out of Jakarta will be ordered to turn back. However, for private vehicles that are transporting people for money, the drivers could be jailed for two months or fined 500,000 rupiah (US$34.63). Truckers who are caught smuggling people could be jailed for one month or fined 250,000 rupiah.
The chief of National Traffic Police Corps, Inspector General Istiono said he will deploy 166,000 officers to man hundreds of checkpoints spread across Java and Sumatra, two of Indonesia's most populous islands.
"We will monitor all roads big or small so that no one gets away with violating the Mudik ban," Insp-Gen Istiono, who like many Indonesians go with one name, told local media on Monday.
Meanwhile Angkasa Pura II, which manages some of Indonesia's biggest airports, said that it will erect check posts at airports across the country to make sure that only those with legitimate reasons to travel can board their flights.
The check posts, the company said in a statement on Monday, will be manned by officials from the National COVID-19 Task Force, the health ministry and the police.
Business travel and other "urgent travel" like death in the family are permitted during the ban.
The government is also banning most intercity buses from operating, the transportation ministry said in a statement on Sunday. The ministry will however allow certain buses to operate to accommodate those exempted from the ban.
Experts speak out against 'weak' restrictions
Epidemiologists interviewed by CNA have spoken out against what they say is a less stringent two-week Mudik ban this year. In 2020, the ban lasted for five weeks.
Last year's ban was put in place when Indonesia's total caseload was less than 7,000 with around 400 new infections recorded daily. After last year's Idul Fitri holiday season, the daily infection rate jumped to more than 1,000 and continued to climb for months.
Today, more than 1.6 million people in Indonesia have contracted COVID-19 with around 4,000 new infections every day.
This year, the government is also allowing tourist attractions to stay open during the holidays and people to celebrate Idul Fitri together.
"People's mobility will remain high, be it to celebrate Idul Fitri or to go sightseeing. The risk of infection remains high despite the ban on Mudik which in itself is pretty weak," University of Indonesia epidemiologist, Pandu Riono told CNA.
Airlangga University epidemiologist, Windu Purnomo said although hospitals in small towns and areas are now better equipped to deal with COVID-19 patients, other new challenges have emerged.
"There have been several COVID-19 variants from overseas making their way to Indonesia. Some of these variants are more virulent. They can spread easier and have a shorter incubation period," he noted. (CNA/ni)