SEATTLE, Washington — As a nation usually characterized by its vibrant culture, grinding poverty and thousands of interconnected islands, COVID-19 in Indonesia presents a unique set of challenges. The global pandemic threatened Indonesia’s flailing democracy, developing economy and international stature. At the same time, it exposed the government’s disorganized response, leaving millions vulnerable. Here are some takeaways from Indonesia’s COVID-19 response thus far.
Indonesia’s Unique Geographical Situation
Indonesia is an archipelago made up of more than 17,000 islands. Its geography endows the nation with cultural diversity, varied climates and a vast array of natural resources. However, this geography also makes Indonesia extremely decentralized. This made a unified federal response to COVID-19 in Indonesia difficult. Much of Indonesia’s response takes place on the provincial level. As a result, restriction and lockdown-related policies differed wildly across the country.
Estimations suggest that Java Island, which contains Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, had more than half of the country’s reported cases alone. As geography isolates certain regions, Indonesian NGOs and average citizens are stepping up to help out. An NGO called Graisena created a social media fundraising campaign intended to provide aid to the families of infected individuals. The organization provided living wages to thousands of families across Indonesia.
A Late Initial Response
President Joko Widodo’s response faced criticism. Critics claimed his remarks consistently denied the scientific consensus while touting miracle cures and economic preservation. Emphasizing herbal remedies and the power of prayer, Widodo spent crucial weeks downplaying the pandemic and covering up actual case figures. The government also espoused the unproven theory that warm weather would kill the virus.
By the time the government implemented social restrictions, the virus had already spread to all 34 of Indonesia’s provinces. The government claims its response focuses on widespread testing and contact tracing; however, the actual numbers say otherwise. The rate fell to 210 tested per million people as of late April. Indonesia’s response was minimal when compared to the aggressive responses of other nearby nations such as Australia and Vietnam.
While Widodo implemented economic relief packages, social distancing requirements and travel restrictions, he was reluctant to issue official quarantines of hard-hit areas. Instead, local governments had to submit requests to the Ministry of Health with region-specific guidelines and mitigation efforts to officially lockdown.
Widodo claims his actions were in the interest of the general public. He believed a federal lockdown would be difficult to enforce and cost thousands of lives. Critics say otherwise, postulating that proper stimulus distributions would prevent public unrest. Widodo’s only notable exception was his April 21 decision, banning the Idul Fitri (mudik) of migrant workers ahead of Ramadan. This decision was somewhat at odds with his earlier reluctance to ban religious services.
A Disjointed Stimulus
In late March, Indonesia approved a COVID-19 budget equivalent of $24.5 billion. The budget covers expanding healthcare facilities, credit restructuring of small businesses, tax breaks and eventual recovery packages. Crucially, protections equivalent to $7 billion were authorized for the general public in the form of social services and exemptions. Hard-hit Jakarta is constructing 12 food kitchens to ensure its population of more than 10 million is properly fed during the pandemic.
Despite the abundance of public protections, critics question the impact of business elites in the decision-making process as well as whether the stimulus will be enough to rescue the Indonesian economy. The country’s large tourism industry has been decimated and more than three million people have been laid off since early March.
Addressing the Material Shortage
Late response and limited reserves of personal protective equipment (PPE) forces healthcare workers into the difficult situation of choosing between their patient’s lives and their own safety. Conditions are so bad in some regions that doctors are forced to treat patients in raincoats with homemade face shields. This situation is quickly changing, however, as Indonesia is retooling garment factories to produce PPE for frontline workers.
A manufacturing giant, Indonesia expects to make up its shortage of test kits and PPE, producing millions of masks and hundreds of thousands of test kits. Ventilator production remains a problem, but Indonesia secured deals with the U.S. and EU to quickly make up this shortage.
A Slide to Authoritarianism
With the general public and international community increasingly distracted by COVID-19, Widodo’s executive branch has quietly been pushing through legislation designed to upend Indonesia’s checks and balances. The Omnibus Law on Job Creation is a set of business/executive-sponsored bills designed to boost economic growth by easing restrictions on business activities. Behind this façade are provisions that give the executive the power to override provincial decisions by decree, as well as legislative decisions that affect “national strategic policies”.
While these laws violate regional autonomy acts and the Indonesian Constitution, the public remains generally unaware of the bill. Public hearings have been banned and the majority of the deliberative process moved online. Despite this cover-up, outspoken labor unions such as the Inter-Factory Workers’ Federation have managed to delay voting procedures, opening the eyes of the public and government officials.
A Reporting Discrepancy
As of early May, Indonesia’s official figures state approximately 13,000 cases, 1,000 deaths and 2,500 recovered. Some believed these figures were false. The government’s late response, material shortage and lack of transparency reflect a situation far worse than reported. There is hope, however, as recent federal policy moves to address the testing and material shortages.
COVID-19 in Indonesia reflects a situation seen time and time again in world history. When a government takes the back seat during a global crisis, the average citizen must step up to get the job done. Thanks to the efforts of the Indonesian people, the country is addressing its material shortage, resisting harmful government policy and actively working to flatten the curve. While the global pandemic is ongoing and ever-changing, it is clear that Indonesians are ready to meet the challenge.
– Matthew Compan