Emma Connors, Singapore/Jakarta – Public health experts believe Indonesia is dangerously exposed to a steep rise in COVID-19 infections as a religious celebration looms and scams reveal weaknesses in border controls and testing regulations.
In the days immediately before and after the end of Ramadan next week, Indonesia would usually be a sea of travellers as people head home to extended family. This year the government has banned that pilgrimage, known as mudik, but only from May 6 to May 17.
Some will travel earlier or later to dodge the ban and, regardless of whether they are going anywhere, many will head to the shops to prepare for the Lebaran celebration that marks the end of Ramadan.
The increased crowds at malls and markets are a worry, says Laura Navika Yamani, epidemiologist from Airlangga University, East Java. This is especially so after arrests in Jakarta and Medan, North Sumatra, exposed how criminal scams are getting around immigration controls and COVID-19 testing requirements.
"As Lebaran approaches, there are many activities that can generate crowds, including shopping or preparing for mudik," she said. "This increases potential for COVID-19 to spread, especially in areas where health facilities are lacking.
"Crowds at stations, airports and markets should ring alarm bells in government. We don't want what happened in India to happen in Indonesia."
On Monday, the Tanah Abang station in central Jakarta was to be closed for three hours after days of being overwhelmed by crowds heading to a nearby market. It will remain shut every day between 3pm and 6pm as authorities try to discourage people from going to the market.
Concern about the possible spread of the highly contagious B.1.617 COVID-19 variant from India multiplied last week after police revealed they had arrested seven Indian nationals who had bribed their way into Indonesia on April 21. The group – and several others, still at large – allegedly paid up to 7.5 million rupiah ($670) – to skip two weeks' quarantine at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and head straight into the community.
The government's reliance on rapid antigen tests to stop COVID-19-positive people travelling within the country is also looking questionable, after employees at a government-owned laboratory allegedly reused up to 100 rapid antigen tests a day since December. Police say those involved wiped swabs clean with alcohol and then used them for a second time. Duped travellers paid up to 250,000 rupiah per test.
Over the last week, Indonesia has reported between 5000 and 5500 new infections a day, slightly up on the previous week but still a long way from the peak of nearly 13,000 cases in February.
Masdalina Pane, epidemiologist from the Indonesian Association of Epidemiologists, believes Indonesia, the world's fourth-most-populous country with 270 million people, will not be as hard hit as India, with its 1.4 billion people. Mudik will inevitably increase transmission, she said, but the key to the millions of new infections India has recorded in recent weeks is the B.1.617 variant.
"So far this version of the COVID-19 virus with its two mutations has not entered Indonesia, and we have now stopped issuing new visas to those coming from India," she said.
"That only occurred last week, and it would have been better if we had moved earlier, like other countries did, but I still don't think we will see a repeat of what's happened in India."