By Gemma Holliani Cahya
The Jakarta Post
For many Indonesians, family is among the first people we turn to for support and comfort when the going gets tough, but as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps more and more people home for work and school, urban migrants in Jakarta have been asked to refrain from returning to their hometowns to prevent the outbreak from spreading farther across the country.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo called on all citizens last week to work, study and worship from home to help slow the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Indonesia has reported 790 confirmed cases to date and the numbers continue to rise each day. By Wednesday afternoon, 31 out of the 58 deaths across the nation were residents of Jakarta, which has emerged as the epicenter of the outbreak in Indonesia.
While many people still refuse to listen to the government and thereby put themselves and others at risk of infection, other people have chosen to stay put – not only for their own safety, but also for the safety of their loved ones.
Wednesday marked the 10th day of self-isolation for Cynthia, a 25-year-old start-up content editor who lives in a rented room in Jakarta, far from her family in Medan, North Sumatra.
Following the news closely from their home, Cynthia’s parents have asked her to return to Medan, worried about their daughter living alone in the capital that has been hardest hit by the outbreak.
Although she really wanted to go back to be with her family and to take care of her mother, Cynthia has decided to stay in Jakarta – at least until the outbreak subsides. She understands that older adults and people with chronic or underlying medical conditions are at a higher risk of infection, or even dying from COVID-19.
“My mom is having chemotherapy right now for Stage IV breast cancer and she is immunocompromised. I would not forgive myself if anything happened to her just because I couldn’t stay put in Jakarta," she told The Jakarta Post on Saturday. "I don’t want to potentially carry a virus back to my hometown.”
Cynthia, who declined to give her family name, said she understood her colleagues who had decided to go back to their hometowns for fear of being quarantined all alone, or just to be with their families during these unprecedented and stressful times.
“That being said, it doesn't erase the fact that it is selfish and is putting others at risk. If I can stay away from my sick mom, so can you. But then again, it boils down to what they consider to be important,” she noted.
Public health expert Sudirman Nasir said that it was important for people – and especially youngsters – to understand that although they might feel healthy or are not showing any symptoms associated with the disease, they can still be carriers of the virus and infect others.
For people who had traveled far from home for work or study, this meant that they must avoid returning to their hometowns in the midst of the outbreak, said the lecturer from Hasanuddin University in Makassar, South Sulawesi, who is now offering his lectures online for as long as the study-from-home policy remains in place.
Sudirman added that he never tired of telling those who lived far from home to stay put in Makassar.
“If you love them, then don’t go home, especially if your parents and relatives who have comorbidities [additional health conditions] or are above 65 years old. You can use technology to communicate with them for the time being,” he told the Post. “It is pivotal to practice [physical] distancing and avoid travel.”
Separately, 31-year-old Yodie Hardiyam admitted to being a little worried that he might have put his family’s lives in danger, although he had no idea whether he was a carrier. An employee of a company based in Jakarta, he did not think about the possible consequences of a brief trip he recently took to see his family in Salatiga, Central Java.
“I’m worried because [my parents] are now over 60 years old," Yodie said. "We keep tabs on each other every day to see how we’re doing. Alhamdulillah [Praise be to God] we are all healthy so far, and I am grateful for that.”
Looking at the worsening conditions in Jakarta and across the country, Yodie has considered scrapping this year's plans to take mudik – the annual exodus that millions of Indonesians make to reunite with their families in their hometowns for Idul Fitri.
The two-day Islamic holiday is expected to fall on May 24 to 25 this year, while the holy fasting month of Ramadan is likely to start around April 24.
Chenny, 25, another employee based in Jakarta, said that most of her relatives in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, had already canceled their flights to Semarang.
The city in Central Java is where her grandmother lives, and where the entire family gathers every year for Idul Fitri.
“We had already bought our tickets for Idul Fitri, but we decided to cancel them. Our grandmother is really old and we don’t want to take any chances in any way and infect her,” she said.
Syahrizal Syarief, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, said that the most dangerous thing about returning to one’s hometown or going on mudik during the outbreak was that people would ultimately flock to public transportation hubs – the worst possible place to be if the aim was to contain the virus' spread.
Syahrizal urged the government to issue a much stronger policy to avoid this mass movement of people. This was particularly vital because he believed that people would not wait until Ramadan to return to their hometowns, especially those who were financially affected by the physical distancing or the work-from-home policy.
“Living costs are more expensive in Jakarta than they are back in rural areas. [People] most definitely won’t wait until the fasting month to go home,” he said.
As the number of scheduled trips continue to dwindle, the Transportation Ministry is mulling whether to restrict or even ban this year’s mudik to cut down on mass gatherings.
Meanwhile, railway companies are already feeling the adverse effects of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Vice president for public relations Yuskal Setiawan at PT Kereta Api Indonesia (KAI), when contacted by the Post on Saturday, said that the state-owned railway company had seen a 46 percent decline in bookings for long-distance journeys since the outbreak emerged.
Yuskal expected the downward trend to continue [at least] until Ramadan. “Demand is low and many passengers have canceled their trips,” he said.