A mass Muslim gathering in Indonesia has been cancelled amid fears it could accelerate the spread of novel coronavirus, but thousands of pilgrims have already travelled to the island of Sulawesi where it was due to take place, a local official said Wednesday.
The four-day gathering was organized by Tablighi Jamaat, the Muslim missionary movement whose event in Malaysia in late February has been linked to 508 of the country’s 790 infections, as well as COVID-19 cases in other countries.
“After coordinating with the national police chief and the South Sulawesi regional police chief and Gowa District head all night, the Ijtima Jamaah Tabligh event, which will take place tomorrow, will be officially canceled,” South Sulawesi Gov. Nurdin Abdullah said.
Although local officials had called for a postponement, “the local committee still held the event, so that thousands of participants from a number of regions in Indonesia and hundreds from abroad are already present,” Nurdin said in an Instagram post.
Police will isolate the participants and take them back to seaports and airports “with necessary security,” he said, calling for the public to remain calm.
An organizer of the event, Arifuddin Saeni, earlier told reporters that participants were “still coming.”
"There are people from Thailand, Arabia, India and the Philippines,” Reuters quoted Arifuddin as saying.
Local police chief Boy Samlo told BenarNews on Wednesday that he had not issued a permit for the gathering. “We are still trying to persuade the organizers to postpone it,” he said.
Samlo declined to give an estimate for the number of participants, but The Australian newspaper quoted a local official from Gowa Regency as saying that as many as 3,000 pilgrims had already arrived, most of them from around Indonesia.
Coronavirus cases in Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have been traced to the international event held as Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur from Feb. 27 – March 1, with participants falling ill after returning home.
As Malaysia and the Philippines instituted lockdowns and banned group worship, and the World Health Organization appealed for “urgent measures” to stop the spread of coronavirus in Southeast Asia, sprawling and decentralized Indonesia was taking a different approach.
Officials in Jakarta had not issued comments on the events as of Wednesday. Since the fall of autocratic President Suharto in 1998, provincial governments have enjoyed a degree of autonomy in managing their affairs.
“Up to now, we have not considered planning a lockdown policy,” Jokowi said in a statement issued from the Presidential Palace in Bogor, West Java, on Monday. He urged Indonesians to avoid crowds and practice social distancing.
Indonesia’s death toll from the pandemic jumped to 19 on Wednesday, from seven the previous day, while the number of confirmed cases rose to 227 after the discovery of 55 new infections, officials said.
But with mass gatherings cancelled across the globe, amid fears of the pandemic overwhelming hospitals and claiming many lives, about 7,000 people were expected to attend the inauguration Thursday of an archbishop Siprianus Hormat on Flores Island, in predominantly Christian East Nusa Tenggara province.
“Thousands are expected to attend, [around] 1,800 inside the church and 5,000 outside,” Jalemu Ardu Marius, spokesman for the East Nusa Tenggara provincial government, told CNN Indonesia.
Thousands gather for prayer
In Bangladesh, tens of thousands of devotees attended a massive coronavirus prayer session on Wednesday without seeking permission to hold the public event, police said.
Local police chief Tota Miah said some 10,000 Muslims gathered in an open field in Raipur town in southern Bangladesh to pray "healing verses" from the Koran to rid the country of the deadly virus. Organizers claimed the number of worshippers was 25,000.
“They held the Khatme Shifa prayers after dawn to free the country from the coronavirus,” Miah told the news service AFP.
The number of positive cases in the country of 168 million people stands at 14, with one death, although some medical experts fear not enough tests were being conducted.
Filipino participant died of COVID-19
In the southern Philippines, authorities said they were trying to track down dozens of people who attended the Muslim gathering in Malaysia.
But Zia Alonto Adiong, an official of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said the effort was stymied by the reluctance of the Health Department in Manila to release the identities of the 17 coronavirus patients who have died thus far.
The Health Department said that one casualty, whom it identified as Patient No. 201, had travelled to attend the gathering in Kuala Lumpur.
“But we cannot cross-check his name to our list because the health department will not release the identity,” Adiong said.
The patient died Tuesday at a medical center in Marawi City, and was later confirmed to be positive for COVID-19.
The global death toll from the pandemic has passed 8,600, with close to 208,000 confirmed cases, according to a tally Wednesday from the World Health Organization’s Emergency Dashboard.
In Thailand, the country’s Muslim authority or Sheikhul Islam cancelled Friday group prayer services in and around Bangkok and in “government controlled areas” around the country. But Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said the nation had no need to impose a lockdown.
“If we use the word lockdown, it sounds chaotic. … We don’t want that,” Prayuth told reporters. “If it reaches that level, and I have to shut down (the country), what about food supplies? How do we live our lives?”
A prominent economist predicted a recession in Thailand due to COVID-19, as the nation reported its highest number of infections in a single day – 35, bringing the total to 212.
"The Thai economy at this time, is expected to enter a recession, in technical terms, in the first half of this year,” Anusorn Thammajai, a prominent economist, told BenarNews.
“Growth was definitely negative in the first quarter, with the economy contracting by almost 2%, and growth may continue to be negative in the second quarter," he said.
The World Health Organization on Tuesday urged Southeast Asian countries to ramp up measures to combat COVID-19.
“The situation is evolving rapidly. We need to immediately scale up all efforts to prevent the virus from infecting more people,” WHO regional director Poonam Khetrapal Singh in a statement.
Eight of the 11 countries in the Southeast Asian region have confirmed cases of COVID-19, officials said.
“More clusters of virus transmission are being confirmed,” Singh said.
“We clearly need to do more, and urgently,” she said, warning that some countries were clearly heading toward community transmission of the deadly virus.
Tia Asmara in Jakarta, Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur, Froilan Gallardo and Mark Navales in the Philippines, Pimuk Rakkanam and Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok, and Radio Free Asia, an online news service affiliated with BenarNews, contributed to this report.