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Here’s how a Covid-19 lockdown in Indonesia could look like

After India declared a nationwide lockdown on March 23 to curb the spread of Covid-19, calls for Indonesia to follow suit were renewed with vigour, including by the Indonesian Association of Medical Doctors.

Workers set up a concrete barrier amid the spread of Covid-19 in Tegal, central Java Province, on March 29, 2020.

Workers set up a concrete barrier amid the spread of Covid-19 in Tegal, central Java Province, on March 29, 2020.

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After India declared a nationwide lockdown on March 23 to curb the spread of Covid-19, calls for Indonesia to follow suit were renewed with vigour, including by the Indonesian Association of Medical Doctors. 

The following day, however, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo poured cold water on the idea, arguing that since every nation has its own “distinctive character, culture and level of discipline”, putting the country under lockdown was not an option. On Tuesday (March 31), Mr Widodo declared a state of emergency but again resisted calls for a nationwide lockdown.

Nevertheless, as Indonesia’s official tally of Covid-19 victims steadily increases, pressure is mounting on the government to take more drastic measures. 

The farcical truth is that, even without an official lockdown in place, much of urban Indonesia is already under restrictions that mimic an actual lockdown.

The capital city Jakarta, for instance, has seen police officers posted at different entry points with the express duty of filtering incoming traffic into the city, often turning away people and vehicles.

Police have also conducted raids on cafes, restaurants and public gathering places to disperse crowds, going as far as banning street hawkers.

In a marked departure from the central government’s official line, Tegal, a city in Central Java, announced that it would impose a four-month lockdown as of the end of this month, shunning contact with the rest of the country.

Concrete blocks have been positioned along the main thoroughfare into the city and residents have been steadily encouraged to stay indoors.

But the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management disputed the term “lockdown” in Tegal’s case since it claimed that train services into the city continue to run.  

Across the ocean, India’s unfolding experiences should provide pointers for Indonesia, given that the two countries share similar traits, such as a large rural population as well as a pervasive informal sector of the economy.

India’s stringent restrictions forbid people to leave their homes, require businesses to come to an abrupt stop and suspend public transport.

All this would probably be too oppressive and unacceptable to most Indonesians and could lead to social unrest. It is unlikely that any Indonesian politician would be brazen enough to emulate it.

Clashes between Indian authorities and members of its public over the implementation of the lockdown have widely been reported in the media.

The suspension of small vendors in the first three days of the Indian lockdown disrupted the country’s supply chain so much that a number of state governments later exempted them from the ban.

Similarly, Indonesians also rely on these door-to-door vendors to meet their daily needs of food ─ groceries as well as ready-to-eat meals─ and other essentials. 

A ban on their operation would be unthinkable to many, probably inducing panic buying at traditional markets and supermarkets. 

These vendors are also part of Indonesia’s sizeable informal sector, almost all of whom remain unregistered with the tax office and pay no income tax.

A 2017 national survey found that 69.02 million Indonesians worked in the informal sector, representing 57.03 per cent of the national work force. 

A total lockdown would definitely create great economic hardships for them. Since they are unregistered with the government as formal workers, any scheme designed to compensate them in cash transfer would be difficult to apply.

Thus imposing a nationwide lockdown with a set of uniform restrictions remains unrealistic for Indonesia. 

The government has neither the gumption nor the stamina to implement such a move successfully. The fact that Indonesian is a vast archipelago with almost 18,000 islands itself presents even greater challenges.

So, Indonesia can only hope for a partial “localised” lockdown at best, effectively putting neighbourhoods with a large number of infections in quarantine, while still allowing the provision of staple goods ─ much of which is generated by the informal sector ─ by the non-infected surrounding areas to continue.

The management of quarantined areas should be conducted in accordance with Law No 6 2018 which stipulates that the livelihoods of quarantined citizens are guaranteed by the state. 

Rather than see it as an onerous burden, the Jokowi administration should view it as an opportunity to provide economic stimulus to local businesses.

There are various ways it can do so. First, it can provide ready-to-eat meals for those in quarantine that are sourced from local caterers. This would also minimise the possibility of stigmatisation and violence against people in the quarantined areas.

Indonesians suspected of being infected with Covid-19 have recently found themselves ostracised by their own communities and in some instances have been evicted from their neighbourhoods. 

Secondly, the government can play a more direct role in the supply and demand chains, acting as the buyer of local goods and services as well as supplier of raw ingredients to local businesses by purchasing direct from farmers and other traditional producers.

In doing so, the government would render the wealthy middlemen known as “tengkulak” obsolete.

Indonesian tengkulak are usually blamed for forcing farmers to sell their produce at knock-down prices through the practice of monopoly and cartelism.

By bypassing the middlemen, the government would be better placed to give farmers a fair deal while ensuring that no price manipulation occurs along the supply chain, usually prone to profiteering in times of crisis.

While the Covid-19 outbreak in Indonesia could well turn out to be Southeast Asia’s worst, the crisis also presents a rare opportunity for the government to earn back public trust by ensuring that no Indonesian citizen, especially those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, is left in the lurch to fend for himself.

Issues of inequality are always rife in Indonesia, especially during a national crisis.

There were vociferous protests when it transpired that family members of parliamentarians got priority in getting tested for Covid-19, even over medical professionals. 

The government spokesman for the Covid-19 Rapid Response, Achmad Yurianto, was recently criticised for his gaffe when he said: “The rich should take care of the poor so they can live without hardship whereas the poor can look out for the rich by not infecting them (with the virus).” 

With Jakarta under lockdown in all but name, many of its migrant workers unable to work have decided to head back to their home villages across Java, potentially spreading the virus along the way.

As the outbreak becomes more widespread in Indonesia, local governments may end up enacting their own lockdowns, despite the central government’s reluctance to do so.

Jakarta would do well in reading public moods and sensibilities accurately. A paternalistic society like Indonesia inevitably expects its government to be all-present, fair and compassionate during a crisis of this magnitude.

So far in the Covid-19 crisis, the government has been largely seen to be absent. Failure to recognise this and change tack may have dire consequences.



Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political analyst from Surabaya whose commentaries have appeared in the Jakarta Post and Jakarta Globe since the 1990s.

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Indonesia Covid-19 coronavirus Joko Jokowi Widodo Jakarta

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