200413 pocong
Volunteers Deri Setyawan and Septian Febriyanto sit on a bench as they play the role of 'pocong', or known as 'shroud ghost', to make people stay at home amid the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Image Credit: Reuters

Kepuh village in Indonesia has been haunted by ghosts recently mysterious white figures jumping out at unsuspecting passersby, then gliding off under a full-moon sky.

The village on Java island has deployed a cast of "ghosts" to patrol the streets, hoping that age-old superstition will keep people indoors and safely away from the coronavirus.

"We wanted to be different and create a deterrent effect because 'pocong' are spooky and scary" said Anjar Pancaningtyas, head of a village youth group that coordinated with the police on the unconventional initiative to promote social distancing as the coronavirus spreads.

Known as "pocong", the ghostly figures are typically wrapped in white shrouds with powdered faces and kohl-rimmed eyes. In Indonesian folklore they represent the trapped souls of the dead.

But when they first started appearing this month they had the opposite effect. Instead of keeping people in they bought them out to catch a glimpse of the apparitions.

The organisers have since changed tack, launching surprise pocong patrols, with village volunteers playing the part of the ghosts.

President Joko Widodo has resisted a national lockdown to curb the coronavirus, instead urging people to practise social distancing and good hygiene.

But with the highest rate of coronavirus deaths in Asia after China, some communities, such as Kepuh village, have decided to take measures into their own hands, imposing the ghostly patrols, lockdowns and restricting movement in and out of their village.

"Residents still lack awareness about how to curb the spread of COVID-19 disease" said village head Priyadi, They want to live like normal so it is very difficult for them to follow the instruction to stay at home." There are now 4,241 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Indonesia, and 373 deaths, with fears the numbers will rise significantly.

Researchers at the University of Indonesia estimate there could be 140,000 deaths and 1.5 million cases by May without tougher curbs on movement.

When Reuters recently visited Kepuh village, the supernatural strategy seemed to be working, with villagers running off in fright when the ghosts materialised.

"Since the pocong appeared, parents and children have not left their homes" said resident Karno Supadmo, And people will not gather or stay on the streets after evening prayers."