IT SHOULD BE a time of bowing, shoulder-to-shoulder, in solemn prayer and of hugging, handshaking and feasting on treats. Indonesia, which has a population of 270m and more Muslims than any other country, has this weekend been celebrating Eid al-Fitr, known locally as Lebaran, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the fasting month. In the days leading up to Lebaran the country’s cities normally disgorge their residents, who cram onto buses, ferries and aeroplanes, laden with gifts and new clothes, on their way home for the festivities. But this year, as covid-19 has rampaged across the archipelago, the authorities cancelled flights and erected roadblocks. Lebaran was to be a subdued, solitary affair. At least, so the government hoped.
Ever since the first case of covid-19 in Indonesia was confirmed on March 2nd, concerns have grown that the annual exodus of some 33m holiday-makers, known as mudik, would accelerate transmission of the disease. A religious gathering in the south of the island of Sulawesi in mid-March set off a warning flare. Indonesians attending a meeting of more than 8,000 members of Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim group, went on to infect more than 1,000 people from 22 (out of 34) different provinces. Indonesia now has more than 22,000 cases and nearly 1,400 deaths, the most fatalities in East Asia outside China. As the rate of infection has surged, with 973 new cases reported on May 21st alone, pressure on President Joko Widodo, universally known as Jokowi, has mounted. On April 21st he banned mudik.
By the time the ban was announced, thousands of holiday-makers had already hit the road. Over eight days in late March, more than 14,000 people hopped on almost 900 buses from Jakarta, the capital, to Wonogiri regency in central Java. Similar numbers journeyed to west Java over the same period. When the prohibition did come into force, many ignored it. In mid-May Soekarno-Hatta airport in Jakarta was thronged with travellers desperate to catch a flight home. Recently, thousands have been passing daily through the port of Merak, the main gateway between Java and Sumatra islands. Police have apprehended hundreds of drivers paid to smuggle determined migrants across the country. One was reportedly found inside a cement-mixer.
The ban fell victim to the government’s indecision about how to respond to the pandemic. At first it would do no more than urge Indonesians to stay home, arguing that a ban would be impossible to enforce, before changing tack and allowing local governments to request permission to lock down their turf partially, measures known as PSBB. Jakarta, a city of more than 10m people, secured approval on April 10th; since then at least 20 provinces and regencies have followed suit. “The advice that the president was getting was very politicised,” says Aaron Connelly, in Singapore for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank. The ex-generals dominating the government’s covid-19 taskforce worried that a lockdown would strangle the economy, and cause social unrest. Their stance hardened when Anies Baswedan, the governor of Jakarta and a political opponent of Jokowi’s, began criticising the government for not taking the pandemic seriously enough. “Jokowi repeatedly sided with the generals and as a result of that was very slow to act,” says Mr Connelly.
As the government hummed and hawed, the slump in global demand and the lockdown in Jakarta began to sap the economy. The Indonesian Chamber of Commerce reckons that more than 6m Indonesians have lost their jobs owing to the pandemic. A quarter of Indonesians surveyed in mid-April by Saiful Mujani, a pollster, said that they could no longer fulfil their basic needs without borrowing money. Those who need government help are finding it hard to obtain. On May 18th Jokowi admitted that just a quarter of urbanites whose livelihoods have been damaged by the crisis have received social aid. For many, the prospect of imminent destitution was a strong incentive to return to the safety-net provided by their families and birthplaces. Another, says Vissia Ita Yulianto, an anthropologist at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta in central Java, is the cultural belief that one of the most important rituals of Lebaran, asking family members and neighbors for forgiveness, must be conducted in person.
A chorus of public-health experts had urged Jokowi to ban mudik. But he waited until the Ulema Council of Indonesia (MUI), the country’s supreme clerical body, weighed in; Muslim voters wield considerable political clout in Indonesia. On April 13th MUI declared “no mudik” and urged Muslims to pray at home. A fortnight after issuing the travel ban, Jokowi relaxed the restrictions, permitting essential business travel for those who could prove they were healthy. At the same time his administration began publicly mooting an “exit strategy” for the partial lockdowns, and some local politicians advocated permitting people to attend mosques over Lebaran. These mixed messages have sowed widespread confusion and squandered public trust, according to Dicky Sofjan, also of Gadjah Mada. In the run-up to Lebaran, hordes of shoppers descended upon malls and markets. Many found ways to exploit loopholes in the travel ban: seven people suspected of peddling fake travel papers were recently arrested in Bali.
Many others are following the rules. Arief Ken Riyadi, who works in IT, is staying in Jakarta. “If I insisted to go home [in Malam, east Java], probably my family will not open the door to me,” he laughs ruefully. In mid-April almost 88% of Indonesians surveyed in a poll by Saiful Mujani thought that the PSBB restrictions were a good idea, and just 52% thought that the central government had acted quickly enough. Since that poll was conducted in mid-April, the national mood has soured. On May 16th #IndonesiaTerserah (“Whatever, Indonesia”), a hashtag capturing public scorn for those flouting the rules and the ineffective politicians drawing them up, went viral—no wonder, given this week’s spike in infections. Marking the festival, Jokowi may well have tucked into familiar festive fare—sambal goreng ati and rendang. But perhaps he should have taken the opportunity also to seek the public’s forgiveness.