Resty Woro Yuniar – Travel bans in Indonesia and Malaysia aimed at stemming the traditional exodus ahead of the Eid ul-Fitr religious festival may do little to prevent a rise in Covid-19 infections, health experts have said, with one warning an India-style flare-up is possible.
The emergence of new Covid-19 variants, the slow pace of vaccinations and people's dwindling obedience towards coronavirus health protocols mean the two Muslim-majority countries – Southeast Asia's most populous countries – could instead face a surge of cases in the weeks following the festival.
Eid ul-Fitr, known regionally as Hari Raya, falls on May 13 and 14 this year.
Millions of Muslims in Indonesia traditionally celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan by travelling to their hometowns, in a mass exodus known colloquially as mudik, but authorities have attempted to clamp down on the practice this year by imposing a domestic travel ban spanning the 12 days during and after Eid.
Malaysia, meanwhile, has implemented an interstate travel ban that will last until a month after Eid. It is also enforcing a partial lockdown in Kuala Lumpur that will last until May 20, during which only essential businesses will be allowed to operate and restaurants will be limited to serving take away only. Singapore, which has seen a slight rise in community cases recently, has also tightened its coronavirus measures by reducing the number of people allowed at social gatherings from eight to five.
Indonesia is currently averaging more than 5,000 new cases daily, while Malaysia records around half that amount. While Indonesia's highest daily total, of 14,518, was recorded back on January 30, authorities in the country are wary that infections could spike again as more contagious new variants emerge.
Implementing a travel ban at this point in the religious calendar will be no small feat. Some 87 per cent of Indonesia's population of 270 million are Muslim and for many in big cities Eid offers the only opportunity to return home to see families, making it the country's biggest and busiest holiday season.
In 2019, more than 18 million Indonesians carried out mudik. The authorities also banned travel during the period last year, for the first time ever, with mixed results and widespread reports of people flouting the rules.
This year, people are again expected to find ways around the restrictions, which require travellers to show negative Covid-19 test results and documents indicating their travel purposes.
Already there is evidence of this happening, with a recent viral video showing a woman crying and pleading with a traffic officer in Banten province to be allowed to continue her journey to Lampung in Sumatra island. The video shows the women explaining that she recently lost her job and has run out of money. The police let her pass.
A recent survey by the Transport Ministry found that 18 million people still planned on mudik this year.
In the past week, more than 642,000 people have left the Greater Jakarta Area via land, ferry, or trains, according to official data.
The police have beefed up their operations by deploying 155,000 personnel to 333 checkpoints, scattered from Sumatra to Bali.
The mudik cat-and-mouse game has caused concern among health experts who warn that Indonesia could face a surge in Covid-19 cases weeks after Eid. They say the problem is not only about those people who will willingly break the rules, but with the many people who (with advance notice of the travel ban) decided to leave for their hometowns earlier than usual.
"Last year, the Eid holidays contributed to a 10 to 20 per cent rise in coronavirus cases. It is an undisputed scientific fact that [when] a large number of people [are mobilised] this will worsen a pandemic," said Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia.
"New variants have also been detected in Indonesia. These are more contagious and could reduce the efficacy of the vaccines or peoples' antibodies. It means that people who have already contracted Covid-19 could get reinfected. This is why mudik is still risky this year."
More contagious variants, first detected in India, South Africa and Britain, have been discovered in both Indonesia and Malaysia.
Hermawan Saputra, from the Indonesian Public Health Association, said the health-care system would be overwhelmed if cases were to rise between 30 and 50 per cent.
The combination of pandemic fatigue, lax enforcement, and a failure to coordinate regulations between different government agencies meant Indonesia could potentially face a similar surge to that seen in India, Hermawan said.
Some experts have attributed the wave of infections currently sweeping India to the government's decision to allow festivals and political rallies as it assumed the worst of the crisis was over.
Recently, authorities in Indonesia busted a scam at an airport in North Sumatra, in which workers at a state-owned pharmaceutical firm allegedly reused nasal swabs for coronavirus tests on thousands of travellers. They also arrested a man on suspicion of selling illegal nasal swabs in central Java.
Meanwhile some foreigners are still allowed to enter the country despite the border closures as the entry ban does not apply to those with temporary stay permits or essential work visas.
In April, 135 Indians travelling on a chartered jet were allowed entry and only required to do five days of quarantine. Forty-nine of them later tested positive for Covid-19, triggering an uproar that has forced Jakarta to bar entry to travellers from the South Asian nation.
Epidemiologists have also warned that Malaysia could see active cases spike to 50,000, from around 30,000 currently, after Eid.
"Social gatherings at private premises or in rural areas are difficult to monitor unless the local community takes proactive steps to prevent transmission," epidemiologist Dr Malina Osman from Universiti Putra Malaysia told The New Straits Times.
While Indonesia is among the first Asian countries to have launched a mass vaccination programme, experts warned it against loosening safety measures as the roll-out was going slower than expected. As of Thursday, only about eight million people had received two doses, mostly of China's Sinovac jab.
As of last week, Southeast Asia's biggest economy had received nearly 74 million doses of vaccines – 65 million Sinovac doses and the rest either AstraZeneca or Sinopharm.
"The vaccine is not relevant yet in helping us control the pandemic. From the initial target of inoculating 40 million people, only eight million people have been jabbed twice. If the [Sinovac vaccine's] efficacy rate is 65 per cent, it means only 4.5 million people have built the immunity response triggered by the vaccine," Hermawan said.
"That is nothing in a country of 270 million people, especially when tens of millions of people were already on the move this week for mudik."
– This article was first published in South China Morning Post.