Commentary: Indonesia stuck between tougher measures and backlash against rules as COVID-19 surges
The devastating wave caused by the Delta variant throws into sharp focus leadership missteps, says a research scholar.
CANBERRA: Two genres of viral video encapsulate Indonesia’s devastating wave of COVID-19 infections over the past six weeks.
In the one most familiar to international audiences, the pandemic’s victims struggle to breathe in tents erected on hospital carparks, or desperate family members go from hospital to hospital looking for somewhere with capacity to treat their loved ones.
In the other, municipal police meet resistance from irate petty traders flouting the lockdown imposed by President Joko Widodo in early July. A coffee seller in West Java declined to pay a 5 million rupiah (S$472) fine for trading, reasoning that he’d be better off financially if he accepted the alternative of three days in prison.
At a restaurant in North Sumatra, police officers were sprayed with a hose by the owner.
Viewed side-by-side, these scenes illustrate how Indonesia’s government is split between two apparently irreconcilable political goals. It needs to be seen to be mitigating the health crisis in the eyes of middle-class voters terrified of the virus.
But it’s scared of the consequences of stopping workers in the vast informal sector from earning income or doing anything that would cause mass redundancies in the formal sector.
With policy stuck the middle, Indonesia is experiencing its gravest humanitarian crisis since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, despite government officials insisting that everything is under control.
While it appears that the worst of the July wave has passed in the major population centres on Java island, more suffering is to come as the Delta variant takes hold in Indonesia’s less-developed outer islands.
The scale of the current crisis is undoubtedly a failure of leadership.
The government resisted experts’ calls to enact lockdowns in May and June, when they might have made a difference, afraid of upsetting the economy and the sensibilities of devout Muslims ahead of the Eid holiday.
Many Indonesians are enraged by the government’s preoccupation with spin. From the outset of the pandemic officials downplayed the threat of the virus, admitting that it was concealing case numbers.
This is now an entrenched habit: In an attempt to keep their local economies open, regional governments have been massaging their case numbers to avoid being included in lockdowns.
Aggregated national death counts are misleading, too, because they count only those positive cases who die in health facilities — excluding the alarming number of Indonesians who are now dying in home isolation, unable to obtain a hospital bed.
President Widodo — who has staked every ounce of his political capital on his economic development agenda — feels that his political fortunes depend on the economy more than anything. As he said in his Independence Day speech on Tuesday (Aug 17), “what we need to do is find the best combination between public health and economic interests”. That’s code for prioritising economic recovery from here on in.
As the current wave of infections was gathering pace, a national poll by the non-partisan Indonesia Survey Institute, or LSI, revealed that public opinion was narrowly in favour of prioritising the economy over public health measures when considering lockdowns, with 69 per cent reporting their household incomes had declined during the pandemic.
Add to this the pressure from the business sector, which has lobbied hard for the government to soft-pedal restrictions.
With the public and business onside, there is little sign that President Widodo’s political dominance is under threat — indeed, his allies have reportedly been sounding out political powerbrokers about amending the constitution to allow him to extend his term beyond 2024, when he is currently term-limited.
Time will tell whether these designs are hubristic. But it’s clear that the government thinks it has judged the politics of the pandemic well.
VACCINE PROGRAMME WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE
A decent vaccine programme will further safeguard the president’s political standing. Between Indonesia’s extensive network of puskesmas (community health clinics), and a scheme allowing private employers to buy doses to vaccinate their workforces, there are solid foundations for competent vaccine rollout.
Progress will be aided by the number of citizens who gain immunity the hard way through infection. With so many mild or asymptomatic cases going undetected by the testing regime, it’s likely that the number of Indonesians with some natural immunity dwarfs the number of vaccine recipients at present, though there’s not enough national-level serological data to say for sure.
Vaccine hesitancy is a substantial, though diminishing, problem. In June, 36.4 per cent of Indonesians told LSI that they didn’t want a vaccine, primarily out of fear of side effects or because they doubted its efficacy.
Non-trivial numbers of them reject it for more paranoid reasons, from believing that the virus’ dangers have been exaggerated, or that the pandemic is an outright hoax.
Hardcore anti-vaxxers will be hard for the government to reach in Indonesia’s polarised political climate, but other polls suggest many previously on the fence about vaccination are now expressing enthusiasm for it now that the dangers of the virus are more obvious.
That leaves supply as the biggest problem. This is largely a function of the global market for vaccine doses, a situation that should improve as global supplies increase over the second half of 2021.
Liam Gammon is a Research Scholar in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University. This commentary first appeared on the East Asia Forum.