Several religious gatherings in Indonesia are believed to have played a very large role in the spread of COVID-19 in the country. This finding generated a headache for the government of President Joko Widodo, who is talking about a new normal to get the country back on track and reluctant to enrage conservative religious groups, a major source of political support.
On June 3, the state news agency reported that President Joko Widodo met with religious leaders to discuss the possibility of reopening places of worship that were closed by the pandemic. Mosques and churches have reopened their doors even though they are not working to their full capacity.
The prospect of a full reopening has caused anxiety among many who fear a second wave of the virus.
Pembukaan tempat ibadah sebagaimana tercantum dlm surat edaran Menteri Agama Fachrul Razi di tenerh pandemi dikhawatirkan terlalu tergesa-gesa dan berpotensi menjadi kluster baru penyebaran virus karena orang tanpa gejala yang datang tidaktidak bidak tetank
– M Agustinus (@magustinusprb) June 1, 2020
Reopening places of worship in the midst of this pandemic as mentioned in the letter from the Minister of Religious Affairs seems rushed. This measure could create new sources of contagion because it is difficult to detect people who do not show symptoms.
Korea gagal new normal dan dilakukan pembatasan kembali. Indonesia kayanya belum kepikiran nanti kalau kasusnya naik lagi maka akan PSBB kembali. Urgensi pembukaan rumah ibadah duluan diatas semua termasuk ekonomi.
Apakah ada yang melakukan review setelah pembukaan rumah ibadah?
– Yonatan Purba 🎹 (@yonpurba) June 5, 2020
South Korea did not apply (what we know) as measures of the new normal, they have put the restrictions back! Indonesia does not seem to reflect on this. Reopening places of worship is prioritized over the economy. Will there be any reviews of the reopening of places of worship?
Initially, the authorities were reluctant to apply measures to limit religious activities before COVID-19.
In February, the Indonesian vice president and influential conservative cleric Ma'aruf Amin even cited the qunut, a prayer that is recited against threats and omens, to help contain the virus.
Amin's presence helped President Widodo secure re-election in disputed elections in 2019.
But with the increase in COVID-19 cases in March and April, the so-called “super-transmitters” of the virus became a key issue in public discourse.
‘Supertransmission’ is a phenomenon applicable to the transmission of disease in all kinds of mass gatherings. But in Indonesia, these events have been largely religious in nature.
In March, for example, there was almost a Tabligh Akbar (mass gathering for Muslims, combining Quran recitation, sermons, and proselytizing) in the Indonesian province of Sulawesi.
The provincial government failed to postpone the meeting and it was only when the central government in Jakarta issued a directive that it was canceled. By then up to 8000 Indonesian parishioners and hundreds of foreigners had gathered.
This gathering is suspected of causing virus outbreaks in 22 provinces, according to Indonesian health authorities.
Also in March, a Christian retreat in Bandung, West Java, brought together 2,000 people. Local governor Ridwan Kamil later described the meeting at a hotel in Badung as one of the province's four infectious outbreaks. Eight attendees at the retreat were hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19. Four people died.
The first traceback test for the authorities came with a meeting held in neighboring Malaysia from February 27 to March 1.
In the four days of Tabligh Akbar 10,000 people from various countries, including 700 Indonesians, participated in the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur.
Since that meeting, which created one of the largest foci of COVID-19 contagion in Malaysia, Jakarta, it has struggled to track participants, as some attendees largely ignored the self-quarantine and testing instructions.
Now, through its embassies and leaders abroad, Indonesia has begun following ceremonies and closely monitoring religious gatherings attended by Indonesians living abroad.
Between mosques, churches and the state
Under increasing pressure, on March 19, official religious bodies issued recommendations to their congregations to take health and safety measures, and to perform religious rituals from a distance.
Now, the government has released guidelines for reopening places of worship as part of its new normal campaign aimed at boosting the economy.
These recommendations have led to a combined response, including some religious leaders who expressed concern about the public health impact of re-establishing places of worship.
Although the potential risk of ‘super spread’ among mass congregations is a source of public anxiety, the impact of the recent –An annual tradition in which thousands of urban dwellers travel to visit relatives in their home cities to celebrate Eid – is just as troubling.
The Indonesian Ulema Board issued an edict of haram (prohibition) against mudik this year in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.
However, many took advantage of gaps in the system and bought fake medical certificates on various e-commerce platforms that claimed they did not have COVID-19 and were fit to travel. An increase in the number of coronavirus cases is anticipated (there are currently just over 32,000 infected and 1,883 deaths).
In June, there is also disappointment among the more than 200,000 Indonesians who planned to attend the Hajj pilgrimage in late July.
The government veto came when Saudi Arabia doubted whether or not to make the pilgrimage.
Recognizing that Indonesian pilgrims, the country with the world's largest Muslim population, often wait years to enter Hajj's list, Fachrul Razi, Indonesia's minister of religious affairs, called the decision “very bitter and difficult.