JAKARTA – Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, was preparing on Friday for the upcoming celebrations to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, amid concerns over a spike in the number of new coronavirus cases and little regard for social distancing norms in some cities.
Ahead of Saturday, the last day of Ramadan, authorities had already banned citizens from traveling home to celebrate the festival at except in special cases, and have urged them to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus, which has so far infected over 20,700 people and killed 1,326 in the country.
However, in the last few days multiple videos of crowds gathering to buy gifts for their families on the occasion of Lebaran or Eid-al-Fitr – as the festival is called in Arabic – have surfaced on social media.
Officials have warned that the country was at a critical stage in the fight against COVID-19 and some citizens had violated the ban on travel, which could trigger more infections.
This week saw the biggest jump in the daily number of fresh infections in the country, with 973 cases being reported on Wednesday alone.
Lebaran is the biggest festival in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country with around 267 million inhabitants divided into over 17,000 islands.
More than half of the citizens live on the western island of Java, which includes capital Jakarta and has become the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in the country.
In a country where religion plays an important role the socio-political sphere, authorities have been cautious in banning prayers in mosques, a decision which has been left in the hands of religious groups and local authorities.
President Joko Widodo said earlier this week that the government was not banning prayers. In fact, he appealed for everyone to pray more, but insisted they should be carried out according to health protocols.
He also urged families to meet virtually to respect physical distancing norms, while a number of ministers even appeared in a music video to encourage Indonesians to avoid traveling to their hometowns to celebrate Eid.
Even the biggest Muslim organization in the country, Nahdlatul Ulama, urged the community to not travel back for the end of the Ramadan fasting period, and pray at home instead of mosques.
However, analysts have warned that it was likely that some Indonesians would violate the restrictions and may create fresh infection hotspots.
Indonesia was one of the last countries in southeast Asia to acknowledge that it had COVID-19 cases within its territory, and despite closing its borders and implementing some norms such as mandatory wearing of masks in public and shutting down colleges, authorities have avoided enforcing stricter lockdown measures.
The first coronavirus outbreaks appeared in Java in February and March, apart from some cases being reported in other islands such as Sulawesi, where the disease spread among a group of around 8,700 pilgrims who had gathered for a religious event which was ultimately canceled.
During the first few weeks of the epidemic, some communities began to impose their own distancing measures, before the government finally announced a series of large-scale restriction measures in April.
These were implemented in the worst affected cities and regions which sought them, such as Jakarta, Pekanbaru on the Sumatra island, or Makassar in Sulawesi.
The government has admitted that it has been unable to implement stricter measures due to its logistical and financial inability to deal with the consequences of a complete halt in economic and trade activity.
Experts have questioned at how Indonesia appears to have overcome the worst of the epidemic without strict quarantine measures, especially compared to the major Western countries.
However, they have warned that the risk of an uncontrollable COVID-19 outbreak still existed and such an event could collapse the limited health infrastructure of the country, which has been able to carry out just 858 coronavirus tests per million inhabitants.