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Why Indonesia’s response to Covid-19 outbreak has come under scrutiny

On March 2, Indonesia finally confirmed its first two cases of Covid-19 infection. This came after weeks of denial by the government and bizarre reactions by various public officials, raising questions on Jakarta’s priorities and preparedness in dealing with the issue.

President Jokowi said in a Facebook post (with this photo) on March 4 that he had asked the Trade Ministry to meet to discuss how to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on the country's economic growth and stability.

President Jokowi said in a Facebook post (with this photo) on March 4 that he had asked the Trade Ministry to meet to discuss how to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on the country's economic growth and stability.

On March 2, Indonesia finally confirmed its first two cases of Covid-19 infection.

This came after weeks of denial by the government and bizarre reactions by various public officials, raising questions on Jakarta’s priorities and preparedness in dealing with the issue.

Following China’s announcement of its first fatality on Jan 11, the general attitude in Indonesia was that the virus that caused Covid-19 was strictly a foreign issue and would not enter the country.

After a cabinet meeting on the issue on Jan 25, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced a number of measures to offset possible ramifications for the domestic economy. 

Tellingly, none of the measures were aimed at ramping up public health readiness to deal with a possible viral outbreak, a likely scenario given Indonesia’s trade links with China.

Throughout February, as neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia reported cases of Covid-19 infection, the Indonesian government kept insisting that the country had no infections.

Harvard University's Professor Marc Lipsitch said on Feb 11 that his research suggested it was almost impossible that there were no infected individuals in Indonesia, given its volume of air travel links with Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. He cited underreporting to explain Indonesia’s zero-infection status. This was vehemently denied by Jakarta.          

Indonesian Health Minister Dr Terawan Agus Putranto called the study an “insult” to Indonesia and attributed the zero infection statistics to the “strength of prayer” and “protection from the Almighty”.

He also claimed that his ministry was following World Health Organization procedures to detect the virus.

However, an Indonesian migrant worker returning from Hong Kong in early March professed to local media her “bewilderment” at the lack of proper checks such as temperature scanning at the Juanda Airport in Surabaya. She had only been asked to fill in a form.  

February also saw the repatriation of 238 Indonesian citizens from Wuhan. Although they were quarantined and observed for 14 days, it later transpired that they were never medically tested for the virus.

Achmad Yurianto, a Health Ministry official, defended the decision by claiming that none of the 238 displayed any symptoms for respiratory disease and therefore required no laboratory tests, even though asymptomatic transmissions have been documented elsewhere.

It was difficult to avoid the impression that Jakarta was burying its head in the sand.  

Even after the formal confirmation of Covid-19 infections, Jakarta seemed reluctant to roll out comprehensive measures to curb the outbreak.

It is also worth noting that the two infected individuals were tested after alerting the authorities themselves.

The mother and daughter from Depok had gone to a hospital themselves after falling ill. The hospital misdiagnosed the daughter with bronchitis and the mother with typhus.

The daughter, a professional dancer by the name of Sita, then learnt that a female Japanese tourist who had been at an event she had hosted was diagnosed with the virus in Malaysia.

Ms Sita informed the hospital this and asked to be tested for Covid-19. To her horror, however, she learned about her positive status not from the hospital but on television when she saw a press conference by Mr Widodo.

A leak of their personal details alleged by someone in the government then led to the pair being trolled online, with fake news being circulated that the tourist was a man and Ms Sita had “danced with him in a nightclub”.

Many Indonesian social media users even professed having no sympathy for Ms Sita because she had been infected “by behaving loosely”.

The public hounding of Indonesia’s first two Covid-19 victims may have the undesirable effect of dissuading more Indonesians with symptoms from coming forward, knowing they may be stigmatised when they are found to be infected. 

It certainly does not help when the religious establishment, represented by the Indonesian Council of Ulema, also supports the idea that there is something un-Islamic about being infected with Covid-19.

In a press release on March 3, the government-funded body claimed that as long as Indonesian Muslims do not eat anything “haram” or unclean according to the Quran, they are safe from Covid-19.

It said the virus is “a rebuke from Allah” for those who eat “unclean food, such as pork, human blood or live animals, which always bring diseases”.

Given that Vice President Ma’ruf Amin is also the outfit’s chairman, its statement is likely to have been sanctioned by the government.

Days before the statement, Mr Amin himself had reiterated the view that Indonesia’s “zero-infection” status was due to divine protection. “Many clerics recite the qunut (dawn prayer), including myself, which is why the coronavirus is banished from Indonesia,” he said.

The haphazard way in which the Indonesian government has reacted to the Covid-19 outbreak underscores its fear that it will trigger mass hysteria among Indonesians as well as of the negative economic repercussions.

This would explain why, even after the confirmation of infections on March 2, Mr Widodo still boasted that Indonesia is somehow benefitting from the outbreak.

On one occasion, he professed himself “pleased” that, thanks to the epidemic, optimism for doing business in Indonesia rose to above 50 per cent while that for China fell to 35.  

In reality, the country’s public health system is ill-prepared to deal with a full-blown crisis.

To date, only hospitals and health institutions in Jakarta and Surabaya are capable of testing for Covid-19 with accuracy. Bali, Indonesia’s top tourist destination, has no laboratory which can identify the virus.

Indonesia’s hospital bed to population ratio is also low at 12 per 10,000, half that of Singapore while there are only 3.9 doctors for every 10,000 Indonesians. The fact it is also an archipelago of 18,000 islands makes any containment effort challenging.

On March 6, the Indonesian government confirmed two more Covid-19 cases, after tracing 20 people who interacted with the first two cases.  

While this signals a greater degree of realism and action, Jakarta should have been more transparent with the public from the beginning, instead of trying to play down the threat Covid-19 posed.

In this internet age where Indonesians can access information readily, running a narrative which was at odds with the rest of the world only resulted in diminished public trust in the government.

Evidently, Indonesia did not learn much from how it handled the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) pandemic in 2003.

Although Jakarta set up an emergency fund worth tens of millions of dollars to contain the outbreak, as well as forcibly quarantined individuals suspected of having contracted Sars, it was never transparent about how many Indonesians were infected. 

The lack of credible data even gave rise to the belief that Sars somehow passed Indonesia by.

We appear to be seeing a repeat of this now with the Covid-19 outbreak. It is not too late for the Jokowi administration to restore public trust in its ability to contain the virus.

The central government must also ensure that its steps are in tandem with its counterparts on the regional levels. At the moment, a serious lack of coordination exists.

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan for example has ruffled some feathers by declaring a state of emergency in the capital city, though no comprehensive measures have been rolled out.

Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security Mahfud MD, without mentioning names, has warned regional leaders against using the outbreak to score political points.   

Time is of the essence here and Indonesia should act now, especially as the country confirmed two more cases on March 8 and can expect more infections in the days ahead. 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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 coronavirus Covid-19 Joko Jokowi Widodo Wuhan virus quarantine

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