Did an Eid al-Fitr mass exodus kick-start Indonesia’s COVID chaos?

Cases have soared since the holiday in May when some people skirted a travel ban to visit their hometowns.

Ridho Sutoko and his family usually visit his parents twice a year, once at Eid al-Fitr and once at Christmas. They travelled back in May thinking they had done everything possible to prevent COVID-19. But they still got the virus [Courtesy of Ridho Sutoko]

Surabaya and Medan, Indonesia – On May 13, one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar took place across Indonesia. It was the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and a time when families across the archipelago typically gather, pray together and share meals.

Eid al-Fitr 2021 was meant to be a muted affair.

In the run-up to the holiday, the Indonesian authorities banned people from returning to their hometowns – a process known as “mudik”, usually involving some 20 million people – in a move designed to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Roadblocks were set up, toll roads barricaded and checkpoints erected to prevent what was deemed unnecessary travel from May 6.

But despite the ban, clandestine routes called “jalan tikus” (rat runs) mushroomed as travellers flouted the restrictions and went home anyway. Others were allowed to travel because of work or other reasons.

By sheer coincidence, the Eid al-Fitr holiday, the date of which changes every year in line with the lunar calendar, coincided with Ascension Day, a Christian holiday. As a result, on May 13, a double holiday was celebrated by Indonesia’s Christian minority and Muslim majority communities across the archipelago.

Medical experts warned the exodus would lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases across Indonesia and almost immediately, worrying figures began to emerge.

On May 10, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister of Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto told the media that 6,742 people had been randomly screened at mudik checkpoints across the country since the start of the ban and that 4,123 of them had tested positive for COVID-19.

Just over a week later, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo addressed the nation in a video on his YouTube channel in which he said that 1.5 million people were thought to have ignored the ban and travelled home anyway.

On May 13, the day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, 3,448 cases of coronavirus were recorded across the whole of Indonesia. By July 15, that figure had surged to an eye-watering 56,000 cases in a single day.

“Indonesia is just now approaching the peak,” Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia told Al Jazeera.

“The growth rate is more than 40 percent and the test positivity rate is more than 20 percent, so it means that the exposure risk is very high. If you leave your home, you will have a big possibility of getting COVID-19.

“If we look at the current situation, it is an accumulation of 16 months of a pandemic which we have so far not been able to control. Eid al-Fitr 2021 accelerated the situation.”

Bekasi is one of the worst-hit parts of Indonesia in an outbreak that has gathered pace since the Eid al-Fitr holidays in May [Willy Kurniawan/Reuters]

Budiman adds that the spike in cases has also been exacerbated by the Delta variant which, according to research, has 1,000 times the viral load of other variants and those who catch it become infectious earlier.

“When the Delta variant is combined with human mobility and an uncontrollable situation, it becomes a good environment for viruses to spread and mutate,” the epidemiologist said.

Since June, hospitals across Indonesia but particularly on the island of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, have become progressively inundated as patients struggled to find beds and oxygen supplies.

With just over 22 million tests carried out since the start of the pandemic, in a population of 270 million and contact tracing almost non-existent, it is impossible to know how many cases of coronavirus were seeded by those who decided to go ahead with mudik despite the ban.

But the stories of those who chose to travel given an indication of how the virus might have spread, kicking off a disastrous second wave of infection that shows little sign of abating.

Surabaya to Malang: David Siloy

David Siloy had planned to avoid mudik altogether because of the travel ban, which he thought would cause him trouble if he got caught in a roadblock or checkpoint. But the 21-year-old salesman still wanted to go and see his parents over the holiday period.

So as not to flout the rules, the devout Christian, left his home in Surabaya in east Java and drove by private car with his aunt, uncle, sister and brother-in-law to neighbouring Malang the day before the ban came into effect.

The journey of just over 90 kilometres (56 miles) took the family about two hours, but Siloy did not know that his older sister was harbouring a secret. She had lost her sense of taste and smell a few days before the planned trip but had not wanted to tell her other family members for fear of having to cancel.

The family only spent one day in Malang visiting their family members and in the early hours of the morning of 6 May, the day that the mudik ban was to start, Siloy and his family drove home to Surabaya.

Already there were signs that all was not well. By the afternoon, Siloy realised that he had symptoms of COVID-19.

“I was on the way to my girlfriend’s house when I started to get dizzy about halfway there and my stomach began to churn. It was like the whole world was spinning and it scared me,” he told Al Jazeera.

The next day, Siloy went for a rapid antigen test which came back positive for COVID-19. His aunt and uncle who had travelled with him to Malang also tested positive, and all three had to isolate at their family home in Surabaya. Back in Malang, another one of Siloy’s uncles tested positive for COVID-19.

David Siloy would like to work from home but his job in e-commerce sales means he is always on the road [Ivan Darski/Al Jazeera]

Siloy told Al Jazeera that he had a high fever for three days and spent much of the time crying because he could not smell or taste food. “I had read an article that said that symptoms like mine could last up to five or six months. I was so worried about whether I would be able to taste food ever again.”

Before testing positive for COVID-19, Siloy admitted he had never really believed that the virus existed and for a year he had neglected to wear a mask when he went out.

“Actually, if it were possible, I also want to work from home,” he said. “But I’m a field worker, so I don’t have that luxury. The emergency lockdown restrictions only make it more difficult for us. Many shops are closed, so we’re vulnerable to not achieving our sales targets and that will have an impact on our salaries. Meanwhile, to tide us over, the state does not provide assistance. What do you want us to do?”

Siloy has not been vaccinated yet, even though he would like to as he travels around the city for work and his job makes him vulnerable to exposure. But he is also worried about the possible side effects and if he will need to take time off to recover as he does not have the privilege of asking for more holidays from work.

“I am a person who rarely gets sick. But when I had COVID-19 I was really scared. I was worried that something would happen to me, but I was also afraid about what would happen if I couldn’t work and make a living.”

Bekasi to Ambarawa: Ridho Sutoko

Ridho Sutoko works in IT support for a local startup in the city of Bekasi, a satellite city of Jakarta with a population of approximately three million people. Seven days before the mudik ban, 34-year-old Ridho, his wife and two young daughters left Bekasi by private car and travelled to his parents’ home in Ambarawa, a town of 63,000 people in Central Java. The 450-km (2800mile) journey took the family about six hours and Ridho thought that they had planned everything perfectly.

“We had been working from home and our children had also been studying from home. We brought all our work equipment so that we could move our “office” to Ambarawa for the holidays. My parents had also just retired, so we thought it would all be OK. And our children missed their grandparents too,” he told Al Jazeera of the family’s decision to go home for the holidays.

“We chose to travel by car as we thought it was the safest option. We stepped on the gas and didn’t stop unless absolutely necessary and when we did we maintained all our health protocols.”

Ridho and his family, who are Christian, have lived in Bekasi since 2009 and usually travel to visit his parents twice a year at Eid al-Fitr and at Christmas.

Worried about the risk of infecting their parents, the family took swab tests before they left. “We knew that the number of COVID-19 cases in Bekasi was rising. So that worried us. We were also worried about the stigma, that people in Ambarawa would think that we had the virus because we lived in Bekasi.”

Ridho said that he does know how he got sick but that it could have been from any number of places. While in Ambarawa, he went to a restaurant to celebrate his niece’s birthday and dined with his extended family and other guests. More than 10 other family members also travelled back to Ambarawa for the holiday from cities and towns in central Java including Bekasi, Semarang and Yogyakarta.

“I also had to go back to Bekasi for an urgent meeting during the holiday period,” he said. “I went home by train where I may have been exposed to the virus. Then when I went back to Ambarawa, I had to take the bus because train tickets were sold out. I felt very vulnerable.”

Due to the nature of the trip, Ridho was able to get a letter from his company which exempted him from the travel ban and said that he had to return to Bekasi and then back to Ambarawa because of urgent business. He told Al Jazeera that he was not swabbed and did not have to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test on either the bus or train.

The family returned to Bekasi on May 18, one day after the mudik ban ended, and Ridho began to feel sick two days later.

“I started shivering uncontrollably. I immediately went and had a swab test and it was positive. My wife tested positive a few days later. I had a fever, nausea and I lost my sense of taste and smell. My parents also said they felt the same way, so I asked them to go and get a swab test too since we had all been together.”

Despite his illness, Ridho still plans to go home for the holidays for Christmas this year and Eid al-Fitr next year because it is like “a sacred ritual” for him to meet his parents for important holidays.

“The problem is, if I see them via video call, I don’t get the same feeling of satisfaction,” he said. “I miss physically being with them. And that can’t be satisfied by technology.”

Bekasi to Yogyakarta: Agus Saiman

Agus Saiman had been working as a welder in the city of Bekasi since February and had been looking forward to the Eid al-Fitr holiday – the one time of year when he would be able to go and visit his parents in Yogyakarta.

Agus Saiman, a welder, was looking forward to seeing his parents again during the Eid al-Fitr holiday and travelled around the ban [Courtesy of Agus Saiman]

On May 4, two days before the mudik ban, the 25-year-old took the bus from Bekasi to Yogyakarta, a special administrative region in Java with a population of approximately half a million people. The journey on the cramped bus took about seven hours.

“I took the bus because it was cheap and easy. I didn’t need to have a swab test. The ticket was about 500,000 Indonesian rupiah ($34),” Agus told Al Jazeera.

“It costs around 200,000 Indonesian rupiah ($13) for a COVID-19 test, better for me to use that money to buy cigarettes. I can buy 10 packs with that money. It would be different if the tests were paid for by the state, then there would be no problem with them sticking us in the nose, but this is our own money. Us poor people. It’s hard enough to find money for food, let alone a test,” he said.

On May 21, once the mudik ban was over, Agus took the bus back to Bekasi. Two days later, his company told him that he would be working off-site and would need a mandatory COVID-19 test. He tested positive for the virus the same day, although he disputes the results.

“I felt confused and like I’d been lied to. They said I was positive but I felt fine. I self-isolated and just played war games on my phone so I wouldn’t feel stressed.”

Agus said that he was not worried about his parents following his positive test, because they were healthy and did not have any symptoms.

“Maybe I got it when I was with everyone in Yogyakarta. We all ate together with my extended family who came to visit as well. I am still suspicious, because the night before I took the test, I didn’t sleep at all. I’d been up until 6am playing games on my phone, so maybe I had a bit of a cold and they thought it was coronavirus,” he said.

“Luckily, it was paid for by my company.”

Agus said that he has now registered to be vaccinated but has been told that it would be a three-month wait due to long queues of people waiting to be vaccinated in Bekasi.

“I don’t really want the vaccine anyway. Not because I think it’s a conspiracy, but because none of this makes sense to me. It’s weird, a vaccine for those of us who are still healthy, what’s the point?”

Following the spike in cases in June and July, new emergency restrictions have been put in place around the country from July 3 to 20, limiting all non-essential travel, gatherings, mall openings and in-restaurant dining.

A student receives a dose of the vaccine against the coronavirus disease during a mass vaccination programme for students at a school in Jakarta [Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters]

While the ban is in place, another holiday looms.

On July 20, Muslims across Indonesia will celebrate Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice which marks the end of the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. As with Eid al-Fitr, the authorities have prohibited non-essential travel and stressed that the emergency health measures apply to all Eid al-Adha, celebrations and gatherings.

Authorities will be hoping that this time Indonesians heed the ban.

Source: Al Jazeera