Millions of Indonesians Get Ready to Travel From Outbreak Center

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Most countries around the world are battling the coronavirus pandemic with severe travel restrictions, especially to and from areas hit hard by the deadly virus.

In Jakarta, the heart of Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and the epicenter of its outbreak, the mass migration is just beginning.

An estimated 2.5 million migrant workers are expected to leave Indonesia’s capital for their hometowns and villages after a commercial shutdown and new social distancing guidelines take effect Friday, according to the Jakarta administration. The restrictions, which don’t include a travel ban, are part of an effort to contain the city’s coronavirus outbreak. Greater Jakarta is home to just 11% of the country’s population but two-thirds of country’s 240 deaths and almost 3,000 infections, official data show.

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    Late spring is typically a peak travel time, as roughly one out of every 8 Indonesians head home ahead of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan. But the new restrictions in Jakarta, which include the closure of schools and offices, limits on public transportation and a ban on public gatherings of more than five people, are drying up work for the city’s substantial population of day laborers, prompting them to get on the road sooner rather than later.

    Like the early days of the outbreak in China, which coincided with Lunar New Yeartravel, the exodus during Ramadan may become the “perfect storm for Indonesia,” said Greg Barton, a professor of global Islamic politics at Deakin University in Australia.

    “If infected people end up in Kalimantan or Sumatra, or even in more remote areas of Java, it would quickly overwhelm the local resources and areas that were relatively unscathed,” Barton said. “It’s exactly what you don’t want to have happening.”

    President Joko Widodo has rejected calls for the kinds of travel restrictions and regional quarantines imposed in other parts of the world, saying such harsh measures would hurt the poor.

    The Greater Jakarta area comprises about 18% of Indonesia’s $1 trillion economy, whichis already suffering. The global financial crisis triggered by the pandemic has battered the country’s currency, stocks and bonds. Indonesia’s growth rate is expected to drop by half to 2.3% this year.

    The worst phase of the pandemic has yet to come. Projections from the nation’s intelligence agency and leading researchers suggest as many as 95,000 people could be infected by the end of next month. Eventually the cases could number more than 2 million if strict measures are not put in place to curb the outbreak, said Pandu Riono, a professor of public health at the University of Indonesia.

    “What we urgently need to do is to impose measures nationally as this is not an ordinary virus,” said Riono. “The virus is now not only spreading in Jakarta, but all around the country.”

    As it is, he said, the country failed to prepare adequately and now faces shortages of protective equipment and supplies for medical workers. About two dozen doctors working at hospitals dealing with the virus patients have died, according to The Jakarta Post.

    Analysts expect Jokowi, as the president is called, to implement a complete lockdown at some point. For now, he’s left mitigation measures to the regional governors and domestic travel is unrestricted. The president has appealed to people to avoid travel during this year’s Ramadan in view of the pandemic but has rejected calls to ban the exodus.

    So Juharno, a handyman who works in Jakarta, is planning to travel 250-kilometers with his wife and their young child to his village in West Java. He’d originally expected to stay in the city for another four weeks, but now, he says, there’s no reason to stick around.

    “I will be out of work soon with no income,” Juharno said. “Back in my village, I won’t at least have to worry about food as it’s the harvest time.”

    The Jakarta municipal government has announced a program of cash payments for migrant workers like Juharno, who like many Indonesians has only one name. But he says he doesn’t want to wait around.

    “I don’t want to wait and then be told later that I am not eligible,” Juharno said. “I have no income and still got a family to feed.”

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