Indonesia, Making Sense of Coronavirus

By Yulida Nuraini Santoso (Photo: Agus Suparto)

As citizens of Indonesia carefully eyed the latest number of positive cases of the Coronavirus and death tolls, sad news struck. On Wednesday evening, 25 March 2020, officials announced the passing of Mrs. Sujiatmi Notomiharjo at the age of 77, the mother of the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo (Jokowi). Despite being safely sheltered from the radar of national news for years, for many the news of her passing still hit close to home. News outlets across the country broadcasted her funeral live and news of her passing for 48 consecutive hours.

This sudden passing concealed ongoing news in the country on the COVID-19 testing for lawmakers and their families despite the outpouring of public outrage, the severe lack of protective gear for medical personnel across the country forcing some to wear disposable plastic raincoats, the early home-bound exodus ahead of Idul Fitri despite government appeals to avoid travel, and the determination of the government to not impose any form of lockdown in the country. This, for Jokowi, was a storm in the making.

In facing the outbreak head-on, he opted for massive tracing, testing, and isolation of infected patients, as was the approach chosen by South Korea. This was in contrast to lockdown measures to contain the spread in Malaysia, Spain, and the United Kingdom. However, many criticise this as being ‘too little too late’. Even if the lockdown were to take place, Jokowi had wasted precious weeks convincing the world there were zero cases. On the same day that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, Indonesia confirmed its first death due to the Coronavirus. Ironically, it has even ranked first in highest death rate at 8.73%, as of 26 March 2020. This percentage is expected to increase exponentially in the months to come, if the spread cannot be effectively contained.

On the bright side, COVID-19 tests can now be performed at 12 labs across Indonesia, three of which are in Jakarta. This is, however, far from meeting the criteria and needs of massive tracing and testing, bearing in mind the 34 provinces spread across the archipelago, the rapid rate of the exponential growth, and the lack of government appetite to implement a thorough lockdown. Critics blame Jokowi’s reluctancy on the impact it will have on the exchange rate of the Rupiah. The Rupiah has inched ever closer to Rp 17.000,- against the US Dollar, which is the weakest the nation has seen since the 1998 crisis. Even the recent injection to financial markets by the Bank of Indonesia has not done much to alleviate tensions.

Notwithstanding the turbulence that the COVID-19 has caused, many have taken to the streets and online to launch humanitarian campaigns, public appeals, and social causes all of which are aimed at supporting the most vulnerable members of the society. These acts are aimed particularly towards those who cannot afford the luxury of ‘working from home’ despite the exponential growth of the virus and government appeal to adhere to ‘social distancing’. Many private sectors have joined, offering certain services free of charge for the weeks to come.

Right now, Jokowi is looking at a greater dilemma: whether to put medical front liners at further risk by sticking to a partial lockdown, or attempt to flatline the Coronavirus curve with a complete lockdown at severe economic and security cost — a luxury Indonesia cannot afford. Yet under this immense pressure, the nation managed to see humanity. A moving image of the President became viral that night. It depicted him wiping his tears, alone, in a corner, as if struggling to make sense of this loss and beaten by the battle which has yet to be fought. That Wednesday, for a split moment, Indonesia not only placed the pandemic into perspective, it saw the face of a son who lost his mother.

This Op-ed also appears under the COVID-19 Op-ed section of the Strengthening Human Rights and Peace Research and Education in ASEAN/Southeast Asia (SHAPE-SEA) site.

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