In 2020, Eid-al-Fitri was a national superspreader event. This year the government and Muslim organisations were better prepared.
Last year, the mostly unregulated movement of people during Eid al-Fitri saw a recorded Covid-19 case surge upwards by 93 per cent in Indonesia. In non-pandemic times, and last year, droves of Jakarta residents leave the megacity and return to their hometown to congregate with family and friends and pray together at the mosque. During the week celebrating the end of Ramadan, Indonesian Muslims usually meet and greet each other (halal bil halal), significantly increasing the contact points for Covid-19 transmission.
Since early February this year, when the vaccination programme and enforced health protocols began to have an effect, Indonesia has benefitted from a sharp and sustained fall in daily reported Covid-19 cases. Despite this, the Jokowi administration imposed sweeping restrictions on travel between provinces and districts and mass gatherings during Eid al-Fitri. Those who wanted to travel out of Jakarta had to do so before 6 May. Those wanting to return to Jakarta from the other provinces would only be allowed after 17 May. People who needed to cross these borders for emergencies were exempt if they could show certification of a “Covid-19 free” test. The restriction policy was aided by a lengthy preparation time and early awareness campaigns conducted before implementation.
Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in Indonesia, cancelled its plan to hold Eid al-Fitri congregational prayers.
However, despite, or because of, last year, implementing these restrictions was not easy. Many disregarded them, travelling from Jakarta and other big cities to their hometowns for the week-long celebration. Many Indonesian Muslims continued the tradition of going back to their hometowns (mudik) during Eid al-Fitri even though it is not identified as a religious obligation in Islam. The practice of mudik was popularised as a non-theological ritual of significant meaning for Indonesians. Through mudik, they can reconnect with their social origins and feel rejuvenated after visiting their extended family in their hometowns. Based on its spiritual significance, which is not necessarily derived from the ritual or formality of religion, many Indonesian Muslims insisted on carrying out mudik despite the restriction policy.
The support of many Islamic organisations for the restriction policy contributed to its successful implementation and reduced the number of transgressors. Muhammadiyah, for instance, recommended its followers in Jakarta to stay in Jakarta. Nahdlatul Ulama urged its community to obey the ban of the mudik. Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in Indonesia, cancelled its plan to hold Eid al-Fitri congregational prayers.
Local governments also played an important implementing role. They circulated recommendations for Indonesian Muslims to conduct Eid al-Fitri prayers in their neighbourhood or even at home to reduce the usually large crowds at morning prayers during Eid al-Fitri. Local governments also imposed a strict quarantine on mudik returnees to their respective regions in line with President Jokowi’s instructions for this period.
There were, however, restriction policy loopholes that undercut acceptance and compliance. As usual, a major weakness of the government’s policy is at its level of consistency. Nahdlatul Ulama of East Java province, for instance, criticised the ambiguity of the government in banning mudik while allowing the tourism industry to continue its operations. Another critical response to the restriction policy focused on the influx of foreigners, especially from China and India, allowed to enter Indonesia for business purposes. The decision to restrict mudik but not foreign entry to Indonesia displeased many.
The success of this restriction policy can only be verified by observing the rate of new daily Covid-19 cases for the next two weeks. If the rate of new cases jumps again after Eid al-Fitri, it would mean that the restriction policy was not effective in minimising the transmission rate. The government should therefore prepare for the worst-case scenario, a repeat of 2020. Hospitals, quarantine spaces, and medical staff should be ready to deal with a surge in new cases in the next few weeks by planning for the better while being prepared for the worse. This was not done for Eid al-Fitri in Indonesia in the first year of Covid-19. It appears that this lesson has been learnt for 2021.
Syafiq Hasyim is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Lecturer and Director of Library and Culture at the Indonesian International Islamic University.