Jakarta. Regional areas across Indonesia have been scrambling to close their borders to stop an exodus of informal workers from the capital Jakarta, the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in the country.
Tegal Mayor Dedy Yon Supriyono announced late on Wednesday that the Central Java town – famous in the capital for its ubiquitous rice meal stalls – would be closed to visitors from March 30 until July 30 after it confirmed its first Covid-19 case, a 34-year old man who had just returned from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Ports and airports in Papua have also been closed for commercial travels to prevent anyone from outside Indonesia's easternmost region from coming in.
Its provincial government argued it only has a limited number of respiratory specialists and ventilators to deal with a full-blown Covid-19 outbreak.
Jakarta has been the worst-hit region by the pandemic in Indonesia, with more than half of the Covid-19 cases in the country recorded in the capital.
The central government only recently started ramping up rapid testing for Covid-19 and set up special hospitals to isolate patients who test positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the deadly disease.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has been adamant that cities and towns across the country should not close their borders, suggesting that people should instead practice physical distancing and basic hygiene.
Lt. Gen. Doni Monardo, the head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) and also the head of the Covid-19 Task Force – a joint operation between ministries, regional governments and the Indonesian Military (TNI) – has suggested local quarantines at the level of neighborhood units (RT) or urban hamlets (RW) before locking down entire cities.
The approach might have some merits in the Indonesian setting, despite many epidemic experts pushing for total lockdowns just like the one seen in Wuhan, where the population was strictly forbidden to get in or out the city and residents' mobility was severely limited.
"From the beginning, we never agreed with the lockdown option because it would harm the poor most," Ari Kuncoro, the dean of the University of Indonesia, said on Friday.
Even without a lockdown order, many businesses are already losing customers and hence their income, Ari said.
Moka, a startup providing digital cashier service to more than 30,000 merchants in Indonesia, revealed on Friday that food and beverage businesses in Bali and Surabaya saw daily revenues drop by 18 percent and 26 percent respectively in January and February.
"Even without a lockdown, business activities have been severely reduced. If the government decides on a lockdown, what will emerge is panic and unrest. There could be lootings at minimarkets," Ari said.
No Idul Fitri Exodus
The Transportation Ministry has said the government should move to ban mudik – the annual exodus of people on Idul Fitri that typically sees more than 33 million Indonesians leaving urban centers for their hometowns – to curb the spread of Covid-19.
"The government will ban [mudik], but it still needs approval from the cabinet," Adita Irawati, the ministry's communication officer, said in a teleconference on Friday.
The government might have to act sooner than they expect to prevent the exodus, as informal workers who have lost their jobs in Jakarta are already starting to make their return journey to Javanese towns and villages.
Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo said on Thursday several towns in the province have already seen a spike in returnees from Jakarta and its satellite cities Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi.
While the governor has not ordered closing the Central Java borders, he instructed neighborhood wards to monitor the returnees and also newcomers.
"The alarm has gone off and it's getting louder and louder every day," Ganjar said.
Still, with economic opportunities in the cities dying out, many say they would rather see out the pandemic in their hometown.
Wati, a 56-year-old housemaid in Jakarta, said on Thursday she plans to travel to her hometown in Bumiayu, Central Java, by bus.
"If the government doesn't allow it, I will go in a private car. They would allow that because it means we're not mixing with other people," Wati told the Jakarta Globe.
Others ponder the harsh reality of having to spend the Idul Fitri holiday without their family.
"I want to return home for Idul Fitri. It's like a rule in my family to be together on the day," Elsa, a 23-year-old Palembang native who works at a TV station in Jakarta, told the Jakarta Globe on Thursday.
"But if the pandemic continues, I have no choice but to stay. I don't want to carry the virus to my family," Elsa said.