Ramadan travel poses challenge for Malaysia and Indonesia’s COVID restrictions

Indonesian Muslims. Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though Indonesia and Malaysia have already restricted travel ahead of the Eid holidays, the likelihood that millions will migrate to celebrate the festival after the month of Ramadan remains a challenge.

By Umair Jamal

Indonesia and Malaysia are tightening rules to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases around the Ramadan holidays.

Millions of people globally, including in Southeast Asia, are observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The ritual involves Muslims refraining from eating and drinking all day and usually gathering for communal prayers in the evenings.

While the governments in both countries are working to enact COVID-19 protocols, a surge in cases is likely as millions ready for the Eid holiday season.

Indonesia and Malaysia tighten restrictions but curbs may not be enough    

Both countries tightened travel restrictions ahead of the month of Ramadan beginning in early April. Communal prayers have been prohibited and both governments have been actively pushing for the implementation of social distancing rules as the month of Ramadan draws to a close. Malaysia and Indonesia have now both imposed bans on domestic travel.

Indonesia has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia with 1.66 million people infected and more than 45,000 deaths. The government in Malaysia has decided to review its current COVID-19 measures following a major spike in cases over the last two weeks. The country’s active cases have now doubled to over 30,000 from 15,000 in mid-April, with daily reported cases sometimes topping 3,000.

Thousands of Indonesian muslims usually congregrate during Eid ul Fitr mass prayer in Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Millions of people in Indonesia and Malaysia are preparing to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, one of the biggest and busiest Muslim holidays, which marks the end of Ramadan. Throughout the month, there have been fears that crowded markets could lead to a major spike in COVID-19 cases in both Malaysia and Indonesia.

“Spikes in cases are closely related to mobility, or in this case, people traveling during the long holidays,” said Siti Nadia Tarmizi, spokesperson for Indonesia’s health ministry.

“We don’t want this to happen again in the Eid holiday. Every measure should be taken so that transmission of COVID-19 can be minimized as much as possible.”

Malaysia’s government says that its travel restrictions during Ramadan in 2020 succeeded in flattening the curve of new infections during the first COVID-19 wave in the country.

Elsewhere in the Muslim World, experts have warned that Ramadan gatherings could lead to a terrible situation. The World Health Organization recently said that COVID-19 could worsen in the Middle East and North Africa during the month of Ramadan as people take to mosques frequently and in large groups. “We are especially worried that the current situation may worsen during Ramadan if people don’t follow and adhere to the proven social measures that work,” Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the Cairo-based chief of the WHO, told an online news conference.

In Pakistan and India, which have two of the world’s largest Muslims populations, coronavirus cases and fatalities have risen sharply during the month of Ramadan. On May 1, India reported over 401,993 new cases, settling a fresh global record for highest number of new cases in 24 hours. In Pakistan, fatalities have increased sharply as thousands gather in mosques. The upcoming holidays, when thousands will travel to their hometowns, could pose a serious challenge as the virus may reach smaller regions, towns and rural areas.

It is unlikely that governments in Muslim countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia can effectively control the travel plans of millions of people.

Post-Ramadan holiday travel remains a major challenge for Indonesia and Malaysia 

There are fears that millions in Indonesia will find a way to travel despite the government’s restrictions. Budi Karya Sumadi, transport minister, believes that roughly 20 million people will circumvent the travel ban in one form or the other. Between Indonesia and Malaysia, roughly 81 million people typically head home from urban centers to other regions during the post-Ramadan holidays.

Malaysia’s health minister Adham Baba. Photo: OneNews, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In April, Malaysia’s health ministry proposed keeping a ban on interstate travel throughout the Eid holidays, state news agency Bernama reported.

“As daily cases are still rising and not yet stable, this interstate travel needs to be postponed,” Health Minister Adham Baba said, according to Bernama.

However, both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have continued to allow some high-risk activities ahead of the Eid festivities. Malaysia has given markets permission to operate and the Kuala Lumpur City Council recently said that 65 bazaars are open during the month of Ramadan. Thousands of people attend these bazaars to shop and to visit eateries. In Indonesia, the government is still allowing people to visit local tourist spots.

Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, believes that authorities should be more strict as the post-Ramadan holidays season nears. With the pandemic entering its second year and vaccination underway, people may be less compliant with protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing during the Eid festival.

“We will see cases increasing after Ramadan,” warned Riono.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15