From Jakarta: A view on COVID-19

Across Indonesia, health authorities are bracing for an expected rise in coronavirus cases, as the holy month of Ramadan begins. 

In Jakarta, COVID-19 has forced the government to intensify social restrictions across the city of nearly ten million people, as the death toll climbs towards 600, and the government confirms the virus has been detected in all 34 provinces in the country of  more than 270 million people. 

Journalist Eka Nickmatulhuda reports on the developing situation in the Indonesian capital.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all Indonesians into a new way of living .In Jakarta, and that change has been most obviously seen in the traffic.. or lack of it.

Problems caused by 20 million vehicles roaming and mostly stuck in the streets of Jakarta every day, had been so chronic for the Indonesian capital, that people have gotten used to spending most of their time on the road, held up in massive traffic jams. But for the past month, traffic volumes are lower than anyone can remember, as the COVID-19 situation grows in severity in the city. 

It started in early March 2020, when two Indonesian women tested positive for the new coronavirus after being in close contact with an infected Japanese friend. A 31-year-old woman and her 64-year-old mother were the first cases to be reported in the country of 272 million people. 

As the hub of the national economy, there has been a lot of debate whether Jakarta needs to impose a local lockdown or large-scale social restrictions. Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan finally issued a decree on April 10th, limiting people’s movement in the country’s epicentre to slow down the spread of the virus, but holding back from an actual lockdown such as the one seen in New Zealand.

Jakarta’s social restrictions include school closure as well as offices, limiting public mobility in terms of the operation of public transportation services, as well as limiting the passenger numbers in private cars to half of the vehicle's capacity.

Only industry sectors providing essential services are allowed to remain fully operational.  During the first couple of days of legulation that fell on a weekend, people chose to stay at home and the roads emptied. It was definitely unlike any weekend ever, in the most populated city in Indonesia. 

EkaNickmatulhuda 7590Jakarta's food stall operators face tough times under the COVID-19 regulations/ photo Eka Nickmatulhuda

"The only thing that makes me hit the brakes now is the traffic light," says Reza, who claimed to have spent only one-third of the regular time from home to work. The father of two owns an electrical appliance shop at a small plaza in Central Jakarta. He would normally still work on a Saturday because it’s the day when most customers flock to the shops.

Turns out, it was Reza’s last day meeting with his customers and enjoying the empty streets of Jakarta. His building was raided by the Municipal Police Force during lunchtime. “We can see it coming, we hoped that they would still let us do our business, but we understand if they think we’re not essentials,” he said.

The 36-year-old business owner had to accept the new normal of staying at home with his wife and two kids, uncertain of how long the situation would remain. 

One week after the PSBB, or “Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar” , designed to stop people moving around was announced, authorities had confirmed nearly 3,000 COVID-19 cases in Jakarta alone. That is about half of the number of the country’s official tally.

Nationwide, nearly 600 fatalities from the virus outbreak have been reported, meaning Indonesia has recorded the highest number of deaths among ASEAN countries, and that number just seems to creep higher.

 Indonesia has one of the highest death rates from the virus in the world, while at the same time having one of the lowest rates of testing. 

Unfortunately, since there are suspected patients who died before being tested for novel coronavirus, or have been buried before their test results came back, there are concerns that the death toll itself is under-reported.

Such concerns are likely forcing the Jakarta administration to extend the PSBB period. “The PSBB was to be in effect for 14 days, but in reality, this kind of outbreak is not going to be over in 14 days,” said the governor.   

During PSBB, Reza, who normally would go to the mosque for daily prayers now has to pray at home with his small family. In fact, with Ramadan just a few days away, praying at home will be the new normal for Muslims in Indonesia, far from the usual traditions of Islam’s holiest month.

The large scale curbs also regulate social distancing while performing religious activity in houses of worship. Normally, when praying in groups, Muslims would line up, side-by-side with their shoulders touching. But under COVID-19 protocols, Muslims are now praying by distancing at least one metre away from each other.  

EkaNickmatulhuda 7792Jakarta's mosques are quiet, as Ramadan approaches/ photo Eka Nickmatulhuda 

A maximum of seven people allowed in to perform the  prayer calling, called Azan, The only part of the prayer tradition that stays the same, is that it is performed five times a day.

The Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs even issued specific prayer and worship guidelines for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan to protect Muslims from the risks of contracting the respiratory disease. The “new” Ramadan starting this week in Indonesia, will include urging Muslims not to hold joint fast-breaking gatherings and tarawih, or nightly prayers. 

Dian Khalifatulhura, Reza’s wife, supports the new guidelines. “Safety first,” says the housewife, who recently retired early from her work at the state-owned bank, right around the time COVID-19 pandemic started. She’s excited to be able to practice the new recipes she’s learned during the quarantine.

“I tried to find new productive hobbies,” Dian said, also admitting now that she was thinking of selling some of the food she made.

“I have sold food via social-media before, and new varieties I learned during the stay-at-home period might be able to support us financially in the near future,” she added. 

It's actually not that hard to picture Ramadan in solitude. Since the holy month was supposed to be the time to reflect and practice self restraints for the Muslims. But celebrating the Eid-ul Fitr holiday that comes after Ramadan in seclusion might be hard for some Muslims to imagine.  

Indonesian rituals, known as Mudik, are held following Ramadan and supposedly include gatherings of families, relatives, and friends.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has now announced a ban on the practice - but he may be too late.

Reports suggest around a million people have already left the capital, with concerns some of them have taken COVID-19 out into the provinces, and will stay for Mudik and the week-long Lebaran holiday that follows Ramadan.

However ,Indonesia’s current state of emergency remains in place til May 29th, and many who had planned to travel are now staying put.

Reza, who originally comes from Bangka island, situated off the southeastern coast of Sumatra, had to call his mother informing that he won't be able to perform Mudik this year. The booked flights are being cancelled. Luckily for Reza, his mother understands the situation, and will instead cope with video calls with her grandchildren.   

A recent study by health researchers at the University of Indonesia predicted there could be at least 140,000 deaths and 1.5 million cases of the coronavirus across the country by May, if more measures weren't taken to curb its spread.

Banners with signs saying “Jangan Mudik!” or “Don’t Come Home / Mudik!” have been  placed at the entrances to small villages across Java, where most migrants to the big cities come from. The Indonesian government has also seriously considered banning mudik as a high priority option, by abolishing all free mudik travel programmes scheduled during the week before and after Eid this year. 

 Indo-pop stars the “Radja Band” are among those on social media urging their audience to heed the warnings over COVID, with their new song : “Jangan Mudik” (stay at home)

                               Tunggu sampai semua aman, (Wait til everything’s safe)

                               Walau rindu kampang halaman ( Even tho i miss my home)

                               Bulu ramadan di rumah aja ( Ramadan month, at home)

                               Jagan kebersihan  (Keep it clean)

                               Jauhi kermaian (Stay away, from the crowd)

                               Janagan ke mana-mana dulu ( Don’t go anywhere, yet)

However, there have been reports that Mudik is still happening in Java, and it comes early. Even though millions of Mudik participants have chosen to use private vehicles to avoid contracting the virus on public transport. Mudik, early or not, means local governments in smaller cities throughout Indonesia are now trying to prepare for a war against the potential spread of Coronavirus exponentially.

Drastic measures need to be taken to prevent wider transmission, since many health facilities in provincial areas are just not capable of dealing with a serious virus outbreak.  

EkaNickmatulhuda 7401Jakarta's taxis : quiet days and no fares/ photo Eka Nickmatulhuda

The Indonesian Government now predicts about 5.2 million people will lose their jobs during the pandemic, as a result of businesses having to shut down.

The International Monetary Fund has predicted that economic growth will drop to just 0.5 per cent, the nation’s lowest level since the 1998 Asian financial crisis.

For Java, and its mega-city capital, the COVID crisis has only just begun.

- Asia Media Centre