Indonesia Seeks to Trace COVID-19 Cases Triggered by Religious Gatherings

Ronna Nirmala and Tia Asmara
200505_ID_TJ_Gowa_1000.jpg Pilgrims pray on a field where a Tablighi Jamaat mass gathering had been cancelled in South Sulawesi province, Indonesia, March 19, 2020.

Two months after mass events convened by a Muslim missionary group spawned clusters of coronavirus cases, Indonesian authorities are dealing with the fallout and struggling to track down members of Tablighi Jamaat scattered across the country, an official said Tuesday.

Indonesia on Tuesday also recorded its largest one-day increase in confirmed coronavirus cases – 484 – only a day after the head of the national COVID-19 task force, Doni Monardo, claimed that the number of positive cases was “flattening and going down,” according to local reports.

Officials have had a tough time locating Tablighi members because many did not report their travel history, said Wiku Adisasmito, a senior official with the COVID-19 task force. The movement has thrived in Indonesia during the last two decades, with its preachers scattered across the archipelago.

“Their spread is making investigations difficult. Indonesia is also the fourth most populous country in the world,” Wiku told BenarNews.

The Tablighi Jamaat movement came under scrutiny after a mass gathering that it held in Malaysia’s capital in late February emerged as a source for hundreds of coronavirus infections in more than half a dozen countries. A planned similar gathering in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province in mid-March that was cancelled at the last minute has been blamed for more than 100 infections across the country.

About 18,000 people, including 465 from 10 other countries had arrived in Gowa, South Sulawesi province, before authorities forced organizers to cancel the event on March 18 over fears that the gathering could spread the virus.

Committee member Mustari said organizers had sought to establish strict guidelines to ensure the wellbeing of attendees.

“We made sure that everyone was healthy. If there were infections, they were not from Gowa,” Mustari told BenarNews.

On Monday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said infection clusters linked to Tablighi gatherings were among those that should be monitored closely.

He said the government tracked 749 Tablighi Jamaat members who had planned to participate in the South Sulawesi gathering, noting that 64 of those had tested positive for the coronavirus disease and 78 others had been under surveillance.

The number of COVID-19 cases tied to the cancelled gathering is at least 113, according figures compiled by BenarNews from media reports and official statements.

On April 21, West Nusa Tenggara provincial Gov. Zulkieflimansyah said 58 of 1,157 Tablighi followers who returned from Gowa had tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, in Central Java province, 30 Tablighi members also tested positive, according to Gov. Ganjar Pranowo who said about 1,500 people had set out to attend the gathering.

In addition, positive cases involving Tablighi members were recorded in West Sumatra (12), Jambi (6), East Nusa Tenggara (2), and North Kalimantan (5).

The 484 new cases recorded on Tuesday brought the national tally from the pandemic to 12,071. Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, has the highest coronavirus death toll in East Asia outside China, and recorded eight more deaths to bring the total to 872.

Globally, more than 3.6 million have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 254,000 have died, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

The Indonesian daily record came as the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that economic growth in the first quarter of 2020 was the slowest since 2001.

The bureau said Indonesia’s gross domestic product grew 2.97 percent from January through the end of March, as domestic consumption, the main driver of the economy, suffered from the pandemic. By comparison, the rate for the first quarter of 2019 was 5.1 percent, according to the World Bank.

Foreign Tablighi followers

On Batam, an Indonesian island just south of Singapore, six Tablighi Jamaat preachers from India have been hospitalized after suffering from COVID-19 infections, a local military commander, Yudo Margono, said on Tuesday.

He said the preachers, who arrived in Batam in February on a preaching mission, transmitted the virus to four mosque caretakers who also have been hospitalized.

Elsewhere, three of 14 Tablighi members from Bangladesh who tested positive for the coronavirus were being treated in a hospital in Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra province, the state-run Antara news agency reported.

Last month, 73 Tablighi members including 64 foreigners who were staying in a mosque in West Jakarta contracted COVID-19 after having contact with three people who had attended the gathering in Kuala Lumpur.

Catur Laswanto, a member of the DKI Jakarta Task Force, said all had recovered.

“So far there have been no additional cases from there,” Catur told BenarNews.

Other outbreaks

The government has also reported COVID-19 clusters tied to other religious events.

A gathering of the Synod of the Western Indonesian Protestant Church in Bogor at the end of February led to what officials consider to be among the first infection clusters in Indonesia.

Officials did not release details about the number infected but said two priests died of COVID-19 complications after attending the gathering.

Last month, West Java Gov. Ridwan Kamil said more than 200 people who tested positive for COVID-19 in the city of Bandung attended a gathering of the Bethel Indonesia Church in Lembang, a hilltop just outside the provincial capital. A priest and his wife died after testing positive.

Also in April, 41 students living at a Bethel Theological College dormitory in Central Jakarta tested positive for COVID-19, forcing other occupants to be quarantined.

Indonesians in India

In Jakarta, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry said it was seeking to verify reports by media in India that 10 Tablighi pilgrims from Indonesia charged for violating the country’s coronavirus lockdown have been denied bail.

The 10 Indonesians, who had attended a Tablighi gathering in New Delhi along with thousands of other people, apparently traveled to Mumbai without informing local authorities.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said the consulate general in Mumbai was seeking clarification from their lawyers about the bail issue.

“There have been different decisions. Previously, we have reported that 10 Indonesian Tablighi Jamaat members were only required to pay fines for violating the law there,” he told BenarNews.

Faizasyah said his government had not been able to repatriate more than 727 Indonesian Tablighi Jamaat members in India because the country was under lockdown.

“After the lockdown ends and flights reopen, they can go home as long as they are no longer involved in legal cases,” he said.


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