Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Jakarta – Indonesia has urged people to avoid the annual exodus to home villages ahead of Hari Raya next month, fearing a surge in coronavirus cases in the nation which already has the highest number of infections in South-east Asia.
In an address on Wednesday (April 28) to provincial governors, mayors and regents, President Joko Widodo said daily new Covid-19 cases almost doubled following last year's Hari Raya, popularly called Idul Fitri, because many flouted the ban on "mudik", or the annual return to home villages.
Mr Widodo said an estimated 18.9 million people could still head home, despite the ban this year which saw the country suspending domestic flights and other modes of transportation.
But this is lower than the 89 million people who said they had planned to go on mudik before the government announced this year's ban on April 21, and 29 million before campaigns against mudik were stepped up after the announcement. Indonesia has about 270 million people.
Last year, many defied the ban – hiding in trucks which avoided major roads – despite the risk of a fine of up to 100 million rupiah (S$9,000) and a maximum jail term of one year.
"We have to keep reminding people about the mudik ban, so the (estimated exodus) figure would further decline," Mr Widodo said in his appeal to governors and other local leaders, and ahead of Hari Raya which falls on May 12 or 13, depending on the position of the moon.
Indonesia has 34 provinces that are made up of more than 500 cities and regencies.
Mr Widodo met local administrative leaders from across Indonesia on Wednesday, and a recording of the meeting was released by the presidential palace on Thursday.
"We all know the Covid-19 situation in India. I need to issue a reminder because we are moving closer towards Idul Fitri," Mr Widodo said.
He noted that four long breaks last year had led to coronavirus spikes in Indonesia: Idul Fitri in late May that caused a 93 per cent rise in new cases; the August long weekend that led to a 119 per cent rise; the October long weekend with a 95 per cent rise; and New Year's Eve with a 78 per cent increase in new cases.
New variants of the coronavirus first detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil, that appear to spread more efficiently, were reported to have fuelled infections in India.
This came as massive religious events and packed political rallies were held, as the South Asian country relaxed its guard.
"In the month of October going to November, December and January, India managed to flatten its curve," Mr Widodo said in his address.
"I remember in January, we phoned India's Health Minister (Harsh Vardhan) to ask what they did. He answered the key is micro-lockdown, which we then adopted here."
Indonesia reached its peak in January, when the country recorded daily new cases of between 14,000 and 15,000, the President explained, adding that the figure has since fallen to between 4,000 and 6,000.
At its height, Covid-19 isolation beds at Jakarta's centralised quarantine Wisma Atlet compound reached a 92 per cent occupancy rate. Two weeks ago, it came down to 21 per cent, but has since picked up to 25 per cent now, said the President.
The world's fourth-most populous country reported 100,256 active coronavirus cases on Tuesday, a significant decline from around 177,000 at the peak in early February.
India currently has around 2.9 million active cases, from around 138,000 in February.
"Beware. Do not go on a mudik," Mr Widodo said. He asked the governors and other local leaders to continue to campaign against Indonesians making the trip.
Mr Widodo also shared an update on the economy, saying economic indicators showed improvements since March.
Electricity consumption recorded a 33 per cent growth from earlier declines, the manufacturing index rebounded, and imports of capital goods are up, he said.
"In March, April, we could see that the economy has started to move closer to normal.
"Therefore, our 2021 target of economic growth of between 4.5 per cent and 5.5 per cent can be achieved," he said.
He added: "April, May, June are decisive periods. If we can curb Covid without causing tremors, this would be an achievement... Going forward, it would be easier."