The beacons were lit, but nobody cared: Covid-19 and the Indonesian response

When the early alarms were sounded, the Indonesian government dismissed them as hysteria. Now, as government officials are being infected, the government is acting in a hurry. The beacons were lit. But, nobody cared.

To understand the Indonesian response (or lack thereof), we need to go back a couple of weeks to January, when China was facing the worst spike in Covid-19 cases after keeping things under wrap for a month. As other countries, such as South Korea and Japan were battening down their hatches, Indonesia’s Health Minister, Terawan Agus Putranto, remarked:

“Dari 1,4 milyar penduduk sana ya paling 2 ribuan (yang terkena virus corona). (Sebanyak) 2 ribu dari 1,4 milyar itu kan kayak apa. Karena itu pencegahannya jangan panik, jangan resah. Enjoy saja, makan yang cukup,” (27 Jan 2020, Detik)

A rough translation:

From 1.4 billion people there [China], at least 2,000 are infected [with Covid-19]. 2,000 out of 1.4 billion is insignificant.* Don’t panic. Just enjoy, eat enough.”
*: “…itu kan kayak apa” is said nonchalantly. 

This nonchalant attitude was also displayed by Vice President Ma’ruf Amin. As cited by Tempo, 28 Feb 2020, Ma’ruf claimed that Indonesia was Covid-free due to “prayer”. When two Covid-19 cases were confirmed in Indonesia in early March, Terawan continued to downplay the threat of the virus, claiming that it was “not as lethal as H5N1”. 

Earlier in February, the Health Ministry also displayed negligence when they dismissed a Harvard study conducted by epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch et. al., citing that the study was just “a mathematical model” and that “we should instead be grateful as we have no cases despite the prediction of at least six confirmed cases.” Terawan said the study was “insulting”. Lipsitch has gone on record to clarify that he simply wanted to raise the alarm.

Now, the situation is dire. At the time of writing, there are 893 confirmed cases of Covid-19. The actual number may be a lot more, as testing is still limited. Hovering at 8.7%, Indonesia’s mortality rate is the highest in Indonesia. The high rate is linked to an understaffed and under-equipped healthcare system.

Many have demanded Terawan to resign or be fired for gross incompetence. Instead, Jokowi appointed Doni Monardo, head of the National Disaster Management Board, as the head of the Covid-19 Task Force, and Ahmad Yurianto as the official spokesperson for anything Covid-19 related. Terawan, as of now, is benched and his fate undecided.

However, does benching Terawan vindicate Jokowi? Not exactly. Like Terawan, Jokowi has also shown negligence of the pandemic. During the early stages, when he should have been battening down the hatches, deliberating potential measures, and channeling funds for emergency responses, Jokowi instead insisted on allocating over IDR 300 billion for promoting tourism, a portion of which involves the use of social media influencers. This was around the time other countries were considering travel restrictions. The travel restrictions were an obvious alarm, but instead, the administration insisted on encouraging more tourism.

Even worse, Jokowi went on record stating that his administration intentionally withheld information to not “stir panic” in the people after two Indonesians were positively diagnosed with Covid-19. 

When the numbers started to spike, Jokowi realized that he was in hot water.  He issued two new presidential-level regulations, Keppres 9/2020 and Inpres 4/2020. The former is a legal umbrella for the Covid-19 Task Force, which is responsible for operational-level duties in mitigating the pandemic. The latter allows for reallocation of ministerial funds (around IDR 62 trillion), ease of import permits for medical supplies, and financial incentives for medical staff. He also repurposed the Athlete’s Lodgings at Kemayoran (for the previous 2018 Asian Games) into a makeshift Covid-19 hospital, and fast-tracked the import of medical equipment from China, including 150,000 rapid test kits.

However, as the pandemic tightens its grip on Indonesia, the front line, consisting of doctors and medical staff, is slowly getting battered. Due to a deficiency (partially linked to hoarding) of essential protective gear, such as surgical masks, gloves, alcohol swabs, and hazmat suits, the pandemic has taken the lives of seven doctors. There are harrowing stories of hospitals where medical staff have had to use raincoats as a substitute for hazmat suits and those who work without breaks. 

It is evident that despite having many alarms in the early stage, the Indonesian government did not pay enough attention to them. Unlike other Asian countries who learned a lesson from the SARS outbreak (such as Taiwan and Singapore) and thus acted early, Indonesia was too focused on fulfilling Jokowi’s economic goals. The only way Jokowi can see himself out of this crisis is if he commits fully to handling the pandemic using whatever means necessary (within democratic corridors, of course). And after all this is done, I think the people of Indonesia are owed an apology for the gross incompetence of his ministers.

It turns out, Jokowi, that people do not live in an economy, they live in a society.

Header image: rottonara from Pixabay

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