COVID-19: Indonesian Leader Bans Ramadan Travel for Govt Workers, Security Personnel

BenarNews staff
200409-SEA-ramadan-620.jpg Muslim women perform the special Tarawih prayer at the Great Mosque in Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia, May 26, 2017.
M. Sulthan Azzam/BenarNews

The leader of the world’s largest Muslim country on Thursday ordered all civil servants and security force members not to travel home during Ramadan, as traditions of the upcoming fasting month become the latest casualties of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo issued the order while the sultan of Selangor state in neighboring Malaysia announced that he would not join people at local mosques to break the daily fast or perform special nighttime prayers during Ramadan to help stop the domestic spread of the highly contagious and deadly virus.

“We have decided today that for the civil servants, the military and police and the employees of state-owned enterprises are prohibited from going home,” Jokowi said. He was referring to an annual exodus from Jakarta and other major cities as millions of Indonesians travel to their home towns and villages to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan.

Jokowi said his government was evaluating whether to impose the prohibition on the rest of the nation. Indonesia, home to about 225 million Muslims, employs about 4.4 million civil servants and 1.3 million police and soldiers, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

“We cannot ban those who lost their jobs and income in this pandemic crisis from returning to their villages,” he said.

On Thursday, health authorities in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s most populous nation, confirmed 337 new cases of COVID-19 – the single biggest daily jump in the country, taking the total number to close to 3,293. Forty more deaths from the virus were also recorded, taking the national toll to 280 – the highest death toll in Asia outside of China, where the virus emerged.

Jokowi’s order added to a wide mix of coronavirus-related messages and directives issued in recent days by governments, state-level officials, and Islamic authorities across the region regarding Ramadan-time travel to hometowns, group prayers in mosques and bazaars where Muslims can purchase food for Iftar, the meal they eat to break their daily fasts.

In 2020 the holy month is to start in South and Southeast Asia on April 23 or 24, depending on when the new moon appears.

Meanwhile in Selangor, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah’s private secretary issued a statement on Wednesday.

“The Sultan with a heavy heart has decided not to hold a break fasting [meal] and tarawih prayers with the people in mosques throughout the state,” spokesman Mohamad Munir Bani said, referring to special nightly group prayers at mosques during Ramadan.

“The sultan made the decision after taking into consideration the safety factors following the COVID-19 outbreak, which is yet to be fully contained and also to avoid the risk of infection among the people.”

On Thursday, Malaysian health officials said that 109 new cases and two more deaths from the coronavirus had been recorded, bringing the national caseload to 4,228 and the death toll to 67.

Muslims practice social distancing linked to COVID-19 while attending Friday prayers at a mosque in Bali, Indonesia, March 20, 2020. (AP)
Muslims practice social distancing linked to COVID-19 while attending Friday prayers at a mosque in Bali, Indonesia, March 20, 2020. (AP)

Contrasting statements

President Jokowi issued his order about a week after he announced that Muslims would be able travel home to celebrate Eid, an announcement that drew a sharp response the next day from the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the nation’s top Islamic clerical authority.

“Doing something like that at a time of a pandemic is haram [forbidden],” Anwar Abbas, the MUI secretary general, said in a statement not enforceable by law.

Even before those statements, many Indonesians had decided against traveling amid the pandemic. By the end of March, 300,000 had canceled train tickets they had booked for Ramadan, according to a spokesman for the state-railway company PT Kereta Api Indonesia (KAI).

Jakarta college student Verayanti, who goes by one name, said she had canceled her train ticket to Yogyakarta scheduled for a week before Eid.

“I don’t want to risk it. I’ll go home in July [during the school break],” she told BenarNews.

Yani, 22, an informal worker in Central Jakarta who also goes by one name, said she had not decided whether to cancel her train ticket to her hometown in Purworejo, Central Java, at the end of May.

“I want to go home during Lebaran (Eid), to gather with my family, but I’m also afraid that I would bring the disease home. Hopefully, everything can be settled before Lebaran,” Yani told BenarNews.

Hundreds of people look for Ramadan bargains at a shopping complex in Kuala Lumpur, June 11, 2018. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]
Hundreds of people look for Ramadan bargains at a shopping complex in Kuala Lumpur, June 11, 2018. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Malaysian protective measures

In Malaysia, the Academy of Medicine of Malaysia, a respected association representing doctors across the nation, issued a statement on Wednesday calling for the government to extend its so-called movement control order (MCO), which restricts the movement of people during the pandemic and is set to expire on April 14.

“A premature withdrawal or excessive relaxation of MCO restrictions will potentially undo all the good that has been achieved from staying home these past four weeks. The war against COVID-19 is far from over – many sacrifices have and will continue to be made this year,” the academy said.

Earlier, Federal Territory Minister Annuar Musa had called for a study to determine if Ramadan bazaars should be banned or if they could be “modified.”

“Of course, the bazaars in their current shape most probably cannot be allowed,” he said pointing out that many contain hundreds of stalls that attract thousands of people in a tight space. “But they can be modified – we cannot be reactionary and just ban [them].”

“Maybe this year, instead of 50 at one location, we have just 10 spread out from one another.”

Officials in seven Malaysian states – Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Terengganu, Sarawak, Penang, Malacca and Kedah – did not wait for a study, announcing their own bans this year.

“The decision was made in an effort to ensure people’s safety following the COVID-19 outbreak,” Negeri Sembilan Chief Minister Aminuddin Harun said last week.

“Traders should be more creative. We can’t allow them to do business in the open air because we refuse to take risks. I hope everyone can be patient for now,” he told reporters in Seremban.

Farhan Yassin, 32, of Klang in Selangor state, said his family’s main source of income, especially during Ramadan, was from sales. This year, starting in February, the family spent about 10,000 ringgit (U.S. $2,300) for Ramadan supplies and had planned on selling dodol, a sugar palm-based confection, and spring rolls.

“We usually sell at the bazaar at Shah Alam Stadium, the biggest one near our home in Klang, but this year we were not able to secure a spot at the market,” he told BenarNews. “We were planning to just set up shop in the neighborhood but with the lockdown, we need to explore other avenues.”

Bangladeshi concerns

Meanwhile in Bangladesh, Muslim leaders have not decided whether Ramadan-time group prayers should be cancelled because of public health concerns around the viral outbreak. However, the Ministry of Religious Affairs this week instructed devotees of all faiths to confine their prayers to their homes, but said that staff members of mosques, churches and temples could carry on with their work on site, but would have to limit the number of staffers praying together to 10 or fewer people.

“We are in a fix on whether we should suggest discouraging prayers at mosques during Ramadan,” Anis Mahmud, director general of the Islamic Foundation of Bangladesh, told BenarNews.

“We have time. We will ask for the opinion of Islamic scholars and hold a special meeting to decide whether we will ask people to say their prayers at home or if they can go to mosques,” he said.

Islamic scholar Maulana Farid Uddin Masud, chairman of the Bangladesh Jamiatul Ulama, a national body of Islamic scholars, expressed concerns that millions of Muslims go to mosques at night to pray during Ramadan and millions travel from Dhaka and other cities to their homes for Eid.

“To contain the coronavirus, we have to avoid large gatherings of people,” he told BenarNews.

He said the government should seek opinions from Islamic scholars before issuing a directive regarding the holy month.

“But I would urge people not to go to their ancestral homes to celebrate Eid al-Fitr this year,” he said.

Friday prayers in Thailand

In Buddhist-majority Thailand, Wisut Binlateh, the director of the Sheikhul Islam Office, which governs Islamic-related affairs in the country, said his organization’s main concern during Ramadan was Tarawih because some imams had allowed Friday prayers despite a ban linked to the pandemic.

“Muslims can perform Tarawih at home instead and we should be able to carry out fasting activities without a problem given current safety measures,” he told BenarNews.

As for those clerics who defied the Sheikhul Islam’s order, “We are thinking of dismissing imams who allowed mosques to hold Friday prayers and may consider secondary punishment,” he said.

Philippines: Compromise

In the Philippines, Luzon island, home to Manila, has been on lockdown for weeks, preventing millions of people from moving about during the pandemic. Earlier this week, President Rodrigo Duterte, acting on a task force recommendation, extended the lockdown until the end of April.

For Jackia Lao, a resident of Manila, that means not being able return to her hometown of Marawi, to observe Ramadan with her family, an annual tradition.

“I can’t go home to Marawi because of the lockdown,” she told BenarNews.

“The fasting will continue. We are not affected and it can’t prevent us because it’s a sacrifice,” she said, adding that social distancing would affect nightly prayers at Philippine mosques.

Tia Asmara and Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta, Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur, Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka, Mariyam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand, and Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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