Indonesia’s migrant workers urged not to return home as Widodo declares state of emergency

Paramedics wearing protective suits spray disinfectant on the body of a man who died suddenly on the street in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on March 30. Photo: EPA. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

JAKARTA, Mar 31, 2020, SCMP. Migrant workers from West Java, Indonesia’s most populous province, have been urged not to return home from overseas or elsewhere in the country to help curb the spread of the coronavirus after more than 100,000 residents streamed back in the past few weeks, South China Morning Post reported.

“Mudik [the act of returning to hometowns or villages] is going to worsen our situation. Please stay where you are for the time being,” said Ridwan Kamil, the governor of West Java, which is home to some 50 million people.

His comments came as President Joko Widodo on Tuesday declared a state of emergency amid another jump in coronavirus deaths, but despite heavy criticism once again resisted calls for a nationwide lockdown.

Some of the country’s provincial and regional governors are desperate to shut borders in an effort to stem the flow of people, but need approval from the central government to do so. Thousands of people have fled Jakarta, the epicentre of the country’s Covid-19 outbreak, where most of Indonesia’s 1,528 confirmed infections have been reported.

That figure is widely thought to be well below the real number in the archipelago of more than 270 million people. As of Tuesday, the country’s death toll of 136 was the highest in Southeast Asia.

Widodo offered few details of the state of emergency beyond calling for stricter social distancing, but announced US$1.5 billion in beefed-up social assistance and subsidies for low-income workers. Tens of millions eke out a living on poorly-paid jobs in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

“To overcome the impact of Covid-19, we’ve chosen the option of large-scale social distancing,” he told reporters. “We must learn from the experience in other countries, but we cannot copy them because every country has its own characteristics.”

The Indonesian Doctors’ Association has warned that the coronavirus crisis is far worse than has been officially reported and that the government’s response is “in tatters”.

At least 1 million West Java residents work in Greater Jakarta, which comprises the capital and its surrounding metropolitan area, Ridwan, 48, told the South China Morning Post.

To date, 4,460 migrant workers had returned to West Java from overseas, some of them through “backchannels” that made it hard for the local government to detect them, he said.

There are more than 24,000 workers from the province in Taiwan, and some 12,000 in Hong Kong. Malaysia and Singapore have almost 9,000 and more than 6,000 workers from West Java, respectively.

“All migrant workers who return from pandemic countries like China, Malaysia and South Korea will be tested upon return. Returnees from Jakarta will be categorised as Covid-19 suspects. They have to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine and will be monitored,” said Ridwan, adding that Widodo will be providing food for itinerant workers in Jakarta.

Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan on Monday told reporters that he had asked Widodo to approve a regional quarantine, “effectively a lockdown”, in the capital due to reports that more people had died of an unspecified contagious disease.

Coordinating human development and culture minister Muhadjir Effendy on Tuesday called on Indonesians working overseas not to return home.

“If you are safe overseas, it is better for you to remain where you are for the time being as Indonesia is in the midst of looking after the safety of its citizens inside the country,” he was quoted as saying by local media.

West Java’s Ridwan was among the first local leaders who sought to implement lockdowns. “I will be having a meeting with President Widodo [via video conferencing] to talk about this. There is one city which has a large cluster of Covid-19 cases and that needs to be locked down,” he said.

Ridwan said the provincial government had conducted rapid tests on 22,000 people in 27 cities and regencies in West Java, with 300 positive results – most of them in Sukabumi city.

Those who tested positive have since undergone a second screening using the more accurate and expensive polymerase chain reaction tests, with results pending.

The governor also emphasised the serious shortage of masks and hazardous materials suits being faced by West Java’s health care workers.

“We need these two items but they are in short supply. We don’t know where to source for it right now. If anyone knows, please let us know,” he said.

Ridwan added that West Java would be adopting the South Korean model of massive testing to identify infections and where they were located, and has forecast 1,000 cases in the province.

Indonesia on Tuesday banned foreign nationals from entering the country, including those looking to transit. Foreigners with residence visas and some diplomatic visitors are exempt, according to foreign minister Retno Marsudi, who said she did not know when the ban would take effect.

Marsudi also said the government would step up health checks on Indonesian nationals returning to the country.

Widodo said there were up to 11,000 Indonesians who worked as crew members on foreign ships, and the country must be prepared to screen them when they return, according to a local media report on Tuesday.

The country is also planning to issue an emergency regulation that would allow the central government to increase spending and manage a wider deficit in response to the pandemic. The move would effectively revise a 2003 law that caps Indonesia’s budget deficit at 3 per cent of GDP for a financial year, coordinating maritime affairs and investment minister Luhut Pandjaitan said on Tuesday.

The new rules would allow the government to exceed that limit for three consecutive financial years, but the cap would be reinstated in 2023, he said.

The World Health Organisation on Tuesday said the coronavirus epidemic was “far from over” in the Asia-Pacific region, and current measures to keep the spread of the virus in check were buying time for countries to prepare for large-scale community transmissions.

“This is going to be a long-term battle and we cannot let down our guard,” said Takeshi Kasai, the WHO’s regional director for the Western Pacific.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters

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