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Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s response to the pandemic or lack thereof has sparked criticisms within and beyond Indonesia. The hashtag #lockdownordie is currently trending in Indonesia’s social media as Jokowi continues to resist experts’ advice to implement a nationwide lockdown. As of April 28, The Indonesian government has reported more than 9,100 cases and 765 deaths. But a recent Reuters review suggested that more than 2,200 people in Indonesia have died from the coronavirus. According to researchers at the University of Indonesia, there could be 15 million cases and 140,000 COVID-19 related deaths by the end of May. So how did Southeast Asia’s largest economy mishandle the pandemic?
At the heart of the problem is the government’s delayed response to the pandemic. WHO Governor-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus confirmed the first coronavirus case outside of mainland China on January 20. However, it took the government nearly three months since the announcement to finally take serious containment measures.
Despite early warnings from public health experts, the government continued to deny and downplay the risks. In February, the country’s health minister Terawan Agus Putranto dismissed a study by Harvard researchers that suggested Indonesia may have underreported the outbreak. Putranto also claimed that Indonesians are immune to the virus due to their prayers. Similarly, Jokowi had publicly endorsed a traditional Indonesian herb drink as an antidote to the virus. Meanwhile, the country’s vice president Amin Ma’ruf suggested that drinking wild-horse milk can ward-off the virus. These unscientific claims are misleading and dangerous as they can prevent the people from taking physical distancing or proper hygiene measures.
Jokowi was initially more interested in protecting the economy than protecting the people from the virus. When other countries started to impose travel restrictions, the government offered foreign and domestic travelers up to 30% discount on airline and hotel fees to save the country’s tourism industry. The government also allocated $5.2 million to pay social media influencers to promote Indonesia to foreign travelers.
Moreover, the government has received criticisms for its failure to conduct widespread testing. Despite the recent effort to increase the country’s COVID-19 testing capacity, Indonesia’s testing rate is still one of the lowest in the world, with 264 tests per one million people. Meanwhile, Malaysia and Thailand have testing rates of 4,063 and 2,043 per one million people, respectively. According to a senior member of Indonesia’s COVID-19 taskforce, nearly 20,000 suspected coronavirus carriers in the country have not been tested.
Lack of transparency is another key issue with Indonesia’s COVID-19 response. On April 5, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesman Agus Wibowo said that the number of COVID-19 cases that the central government’s reported did not match the numbers reported by the provincial governments. It was later revealed that the government told Depok Mayor Mohamad Idris to hide information about the first two COVID-19 cases in the country. In addition to underreporting the number of cases, the government also did not provide the public with accurate information on infection hotspots. Jokowi eventually admitted that he withheld some information to prevent the public from panicking. But lack of transparency can intensify public confusion and the spread of misinformation.
Additionally, there has been poor coordination between the central government and the provincial governments, which created more confusion among the public and government officials. Jokowi’s inconsistent statements regarding the authority of provincial governments to impose local lockdowns have created conflicting policies at the central and provincial levels.
The government’s mishandling of the crisis is not only undermining the government’s credibility in fighting the outbreak, but also putting the people at serious health risks. The continued rise in COVID-19 infections is now putting enormous pressure on the country’s already fragile health care system. Indonesia only has 12 hospital beds and 4 doctors per thousand people. As a comparison, South Korea has 115 hospital beds and 24 doctors per thousand people.
With its limited financial and health care resources, Indonesia should respond to this current health crisis proactively and strategically. While there has been a series of setbacks, it is not too late for the government to fix its mistakes and turn the tide around. But the Indonesian government must show leadership and design policies based on scientific evidence. Additionally, the central government must ensure transparency and proper coordination with other levels of government.