How to stop mudik during the Covid-19 pandemic

Government messaging on mudik has been inconsistent and contradictory. Photo by M Risyal Hidayat for Antara.

 

Eid is just days away. In Indonesia, that usually means up to 20 million people travel from crowded urban centres back to their home villages in the annual tradition known as mudik.

 

It is not hard to see how mudik could potentially be disastrous for the spread of Covid-19 in Indonesia but government policy on the matter has been far from clear.

 

The government initially only prevented civil servants from making the trip home. Then, after weeks of equivocating, it extended the ban to all citizens on 21 April.

 

But many Indonesians have criticised the government for acting too slowly. A Transportation Ministry survey showed 7% of people had already left for their hometowns when the ban was announced, and 24% said they still planned to leave, regardless of government prohibitions.

 

Confusingly, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at one point said that while mudik was banned, returning to one’s hometown (pulang kampung), for example for the social safety net it could provide, was not.

 

Since then, the government has relaxed the ban on mudik, re-opening transportation and allowing businesspeople to travel provided they satisfy certain requirements. This immediately saw huge queues at Soekarno-Hatta Airport with seemingly no attention to physical distancing.

 

Many Indonesians have expressed frustration with the government’s very inconsistent position on mudik, worrying that it will lead to a prolonged and more severe outbreak. Others, meanwhile, are taking advantage of the relaxation of prohibitions, going ahead with plans to mudik despite the risks.

 

Why are they doing so?

 

Mudik is an important cultural and religious tradition. Its importance goes far beyond a simple trip home to family. It reflects cultural notions about the importance of strong bonds with parents and ancestors.

 

People gather with extended family, ask their parents for forgiveness (in a tradition known as sungkem) and visit the graves of relatives. For some, it is a time to show off their improved social status from successful careers in the city. Although the tradition is associated with the end of Ramadan and Eid festivities, many non-Muslims also participate in mudik for the opportunity for family togetherness it provides.

 

The cultural value placed on mudik means any attempt to restrict it will struggle. Dominant social norms suggest mudik is an obligatory expression of respect toward parents. Further, the coronavirus pandemic is a significant cause of anxiety (and economic stress). For many, retreat to family is a significant source of comfort.

A possible solution

An effective response to Covid-19 will require large-scale changes to behaviour. Any attempt to discourage the public from mudik must overcome unclear public messaging and strong cultural norms in favour of mudik.

 

The public are being bombarded with negative messages about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, but few messages about what it means for them on an individual level. Behavioural science suggests negative messaging can be effective in changing behaviour, but only when people feel capable of acting.

 

The public therefore need clear and directive messaging about what to do during this challenging time.

 

One way to promote pro-social behaviour is to provide good or bad consequences of an individual making a particular choice. “Nudges” can be used to steer individuals toward making choices that offer them benefits.

 

We conducted a visual campaign using these kind of nudges and assessed its impact on mudik intention. We developed five posters to test and identify which combination of elements could reduce intention to mudik.

 

These elements included the image of a parent (a mother or father figure), a message from the parent advising them to pay their respects remotely instead of in person, a short message explaining the high susceptibility of elderly people to Covid-19, a visual representation of the coronavirus and a likely transmission situation, and the use of different languages (Indonesian versus most commonly used language).

 

We conducted an online survey of 767 individuals from 23 March to 16 April, before the government had announced a formal ban on mudik for citizens. Respondents were a reasonable approximation of the Indonesian population and were drawn from across Indonesia: 52% were female, 65% Muslim, and 49% born between 1981 and 2000.

 

The online survey randomly distributed respondents into six groups, with five groups shown a different poster each, and one group shown no poster, as a control. Intention to mudik was measured before and after seeing the posters.

 

Our survey found that two of the posters were effective in reducing mudik intention. The most effective poster contained an image of a mother, a short message advising the reader to pay their respects via telephone, an image of a crowded train as a possible coronavirus transmission situation and a short message about the high susceptibility of elderly people to infection.

 

Notably, the posters were effective in reducing mudik intention even when respondents said that meeting with their parents was very important to them.

 

This image was most successful in changing mudik intention.

 

The posters appear to have been successful in reminding respondents of the infection risk they pose to their loved ones if they travel to their hometowns. The powerful image of a mother may reinforce these feelings.

 

Behavioural scientists have argued that reminders and warnings can be powerful nudge tools, intensifying already available knowledge and making it more prominent. Others have argued that nudges that minimise the sense of loss that people feel for not engaging in a behaviour (such as mudik) tend to be more effective.

 

Our study, while brief, shows how understanding human behaviour can help to aid public health interventions. Presenting a clear message combined with a vivid and relevant visual is key. It can help to offer certainty in the midst of widespread inconsistency in government messaging.

 

Unfortunately, it is now too late to prevent mudik from occurring. Those who intended to return home have now probably already done so. But our study does show that if the government had provided clear and direct messaging, Indonesians might have changed their behaviour.

 

Dimas is a lecturer in economic and consumer psychology at the University of Surabaya, and a behavioural scientist at behaviour change agency nudgeplus.net. His research focuses on human attention, limited cognitive resources, and decision making.

Lury is a PhD candidate in Behavioural Economics at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on lie theory. He leads the Indonesia Behavioural Economics Forum (IBEF), a multidisciplinary team advocating behavioural economics for a better life.