Southeast Asia Clamps Down on Ramadan on Risk of Covid Surge
Medjool dates are displayed for sale at the Tanah Abang market in Jakarta. (Photographer: Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg)

Southeast Asia Clamps Down on Ramadan on Risk of Covid Surge

Southeast Asia’s biggest predominantly Muslim nations are tightening movement restrictions to avert a surge in Covid-19 infections around the Ramadan holidays.

Indonesia and Malaysia will limit travels toward the end of the month-long fasting period which typically sees more than 81 million people head home to regional towns from urban centers, a holiday migration similar to Thanksgiving in the U.S. or Lunar New Year in China. Violators could face fines or jail time, though exemptions will be allowed for emergencies.

The restrictions are aimed at avoiding a resurgence in cases similar to those playing out in other developing countries and threatening overall global growth. India set the world’s daily record for cases this week, while infections are also rising in Turkey, Argentina and Brazil.

Southeast Asia Clamps Down on Ramadan on Risk of Covid Surge

Eid al-Fitr, the biggest and busiest Muslim holiday, is usually celebrated with people reuniting with family and friends in their hometowns, sharing meals and gifts and praying together. This will be the second straight year that festivities have been muted, which could dampen growth outlooks in both countries, where consumer spending is a main driver of their economies.

Southeast Asia Clamps Down on Ramadan on Risk of Covid Surge

“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 restrictions last year succeeded in flattening the virus curve there. Similar measures to limit movement are cropping up in other Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and North Africa: Kuwait banned sermons and banquets at mosques, Dubai prohibited large gatherings and Morocco extended a nationwide curfew through Ramadan.

The concern comes as Indonesia and Malaysia are seeing a slowdown in their mass vaccination programs due to a global shortage of shots. Indonesia, among the first in Southeast Asia to begin inoculating its population, will be keen to sustain its gains in slowing the virus spread. Malaysia, meanwhile, is already seeing the beginnings of a fresh wave of infections, adding 2,875 new cases Thursday, the most in two months.

Any setback would undermine both countries’ plans for gradual economic reopening that could pave the way for a strong rebound this year. Malaysia’s central bank expects gross domestic product to return to pre-pandemic levels by mid-year, growing 6%-7.5% for all of 2021. Bank Indonesia estimates a milder expansion of 4.1%-5.1%.

Holiday Plans

Still, there’s growing resistance to the curbs in Indonesia, which has struggled to enforce checkpoints across its archipelago. Transport minister Budi Karya Sumadi estimates roughly 20 million people will find ways to travel and avoid the ban, which stretches through May.

Noviendriza, a 42-year-old mother of two who gave only her first name, plans to fly from Jakarta to Padang city in West Sumatra province at the end of the month, then travel by road to Medan city up north. After not visiting home for four years, she wants to pay respects at her father’s grave during Ramadan.

“We are still afraid with the virus spreading, but we are always strict with our health protocols when we travel. We believe that the airplane is safe for us,” she said.

Read more: Indonesians Going Out More Often to Buoy Private Spending: Chart

There’s also confusion over seemingly conflicting regulations as governments promote other leisure activities to capitalize on Ramadan spending. Malaysia has allowed bazaars and restaurants to operate, while Indonesia is encouraging people to visit local tourist sites.

According to Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, the government should be even more stringent. With the pandemic dragging on and inoculations underway, a combination of lockdown fatigue and “vaccine euphoria” is making people less compliant with mask-wearing and distancing rules during the Eid celebrations.

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

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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