A woman wearing a face mask stands on a street in Jakarta on March 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

JAKARTA – Something is missing from Indonesia’s otherwise blanket coverage of the coronavirus pandemic that may go a long way towards explaining why there is a yawning gap between the official statistics and public perceptions of how bad the health crisis really is.

In essence, it is good old-fashioned journalism, often barely recognizable from what its older practitioners like to call the “salad days” of the now much-maligned craft.

In its place in today’s Indonesia is a vacuum filled by wildly-speculative modeling, simpler guesswork, misleading headlines, and half-baked conspiracy theories which border on the ridiculous but which Indonesians often seem to prefer over hard fact.

When the Reuters news agency ran an “exclusive” earlier this month reporting that the number of burials around Jakarta’s cemeteries was significantly higher than the number of officially recognized Covid-19 victims, the story caused a stir.

But why? It should have been one of the first things an Indonesian news editor or a reporter should have thought of if there were questions about the veracity of official numbers – as there still are.

It wasn’t a state secret. Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan was well aware of the anomaly, even though many of the dead were only suspect cases. But he hadn’t mentioned it and, in a country where autopsies are rare, nobody had bothered to ask.

When there’s a gap like this, it must be filled by convincing anecdotal evidence, which comes not from social media, but rather from journalists with the initiative, the drive and the news sense to do the job on the street.

A man walks past a mural depicting the Covid-19 coronavirus in Surabaya, April 6, 2020. Photo: AFP/Juni Kriswanto

That is not happening. One Indonesian editor says it stems from laziness and a lack of professional training. “The owners are modern businessmen who are only in it for a quick buck,” he says. “They don’t care about the craft.”

It may also have its roots in Indonesia’s autocratic past where questioning authority was frowned upon. As a consequence, most reporters wait for an official pronouncement, rather than seeking out exclusives.

On top of that, a reluctance among reporters to ask probing questions fits with a cultural predilection, seen in politics and elsewhere, for avoiding confrontation. It is also not unknown for an official to scold a reporter for asking a question that might put Indonesia in a bad light.

In the current crisis environment, attending news conferences and camping out in front of a computer screen is not enough. And therein, unless properly managed, lies another hugely inhibiting factor: today’s relentless 24/7 news cycle.

These days writing the story is only part of the process. It must be followed by blogs, tweets, video stand-ups and the rest of the social media requisites that in the end do nothing to add real value to the original narrative. Certainly, it offers no time for introspection.

Google doesn’t help. It’s a great tool, infinitely superior to the library or the pipe-smoking sub-editor with the encyclopaedic knowledge old-school journalists once depended on for background information.

But it is no replacement for the warm body or, if need be, the telephone, even if that device doesn’t convey the all-important body language of a one-on-one interview, where building trust brings its rewards.

When naive officials unwisely disclosed the names and address of the first two Indonesian victims of Covid-19, a mother and her daughter, back in early March, the housing complex where they lived was besieged by camera crews.

Indonesia’s Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto speaking to journalists at Halim Perdanakusuma Airport in Jakarta, on Feb 15, 2020. Photo: AFP via EPA

Yet today, admittedly in a strange time of fear and social distancing, there appear to be few reporters willing to stake out hospitals, pore through records and talk with bereaved relatives, ambulance drivers, cemetery managers and local clerics.

In other words, tackling the leg-work which gets the reader beyond the current doomsday modelling that seems to be based more on the experience of countries in temperate climates, rather than those lying along the equator.

In an unprecedented turn of events, which Asia-hardened journalists find hard to comprehend, the Western media appears to be in no position to fill the void either. Again, it is an aversion to risk-taking.

Twenty years after global media descended on Indonesia for the 1998 riots, many Jakarta-based foreign journalists have returned to their home countries to wait out the pandemic, apparently fearful of the possible collapse of the Indonesian health system under a surge of cases.

In a previous age, when Asia was a hotbed of wars and insurgencies, frequent coups and other political turmoil, walking away from a story would have been unheard of. Not anymore.

At the height of the information age, it’s hard to imagine that a century from now the true situation In Indonesia will finally be revealed, just as recent studies have challenged the 1.5 million death toll in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. 

The Greater Jakarta Area remains the epicenter of Covid-19, although the scale of infections and deaths is subject to serious conjecture, with some models suggesting the actual death toll now acknowledged as 301 may actually be greater by a factor of five.

Gravediggers and health workers bury the body of Covid-19 victim at a public cemetery in Bekasi Regency, West Java province, April 4, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Aditya Irawan

With President Joko Widodo belatedly calling for more transparency, the focus has been on comparing official nationwide Covid-19 updates with local government funeral statistics.  Crucial year-on-year comparisons are largely ignored.  

Reuters found that the nearly 4,400 burials recorded last month by the city’s Department of Parks and Cemeteries was 40% higher than any month since at least early 2018, and 1,300 more than the same month in 2019.

At that time, on April 4, Jakarta was said to have 972 cases and 90 deaths. By April 22, that had leapt to 3,383 cases and 301 deaths, with the surrounding provinces of West Java and Banten adding 1,099 infections and 106 fatalities.

Elsewhere, the picture is clearly different, according to work done by the Jawa Pos Group, the only organization that appears to be making a comprehensive effort  to match the official toll with local government death records.

Established soon after Indonesia’s independence, the media empire is best equipped to tackle the task because of the 220 regional newspapers and local television stations it owns across the archipelago.

For example, its investigation in the East Java provincial capital of Surabaya, the country’s second biggest city and the group’s main base, showed there were only 10 more deaths in March this year than in March 2019.

The same trend applied in Semarang and Jogjakarta, two of the three main urban centers in heavily-populated Central Java, which has 554 recorded cases, about 100 less than East Java.

Off-Java surveys are still a work in progress. Bali, with 152 cases and just four deaths, ranks third among the rest of the 30 provinces. “It’s still a mystery,” a Jawa Pos source said of a tourist island that, all things considered, should be rivalling Jakarta as a disaster area.

A mask-clad Balinese woman during the Galungan holiday at Jagatnata temple in Denpasar, Bali. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

The total number of deaths on Bali in March was 1,987, compared to 1,896 in the corresponding month last year. In February, however, in a reflection of how normal mortality rates differ, there were 1,744 deaths, far less than the 2,513 in 2019.

Balinese officials, who have yet to introduce large-scale social restrictions, say 82.6% of the tourist island’s confirmed cases have been imported from overseas, mostly from returning cruise ships and other migrant workers.

Bali aside, only South Sulawesi (384) and Papua (123) have more than 100 cases, followed by South Kalimantan, West Nusa Tenggara, North Sumatra and the Riau islands, south of Singapore. Together, those seven provinces account for only 62 deaths.

Out on the beat, reporters who do seek to get to the bottom of the numbers game have found that Indonesia does have its peculiarities, particularly when it comes to funeral rites.

Despite the fact that they are enforced for their protection, many relatives of the deceased are far less upset or curious at the cause of death of a loved one than they are at the government’s new Covid-19 burial protocols, which require the body to be encased in plastic and placed in a coffin.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.