JAKARTA, INDONESIA - MAY 5: An army checks the body temperature of a resident before collecting rice from an automated machine ATM rice as a government aid during coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak at a Military district command in Jakarta, Indonesia on May 5, 2020. The Indonesian staple food distributes to the residents in need as they had the financial impact during the coronavirus. Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency

JAKARTA – Indonesian President Joko Widodo has called in tens of thousands of soldiers to enforce a so-called “new normal” of physical distancing as authorities prepare for next week’s tentative re-opening of Jakarta and West Java, the epicenter of the country’s Covid-19 outbreak.

The Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) will join the national police in a 340,000-strong force deployed around malls, transport hubs, markets and other gathering places in an effort to ensure that residents follow a set of protocols that will impose revised workplace rules on employers.

“We have to discipline our people, particularly in the more densely populated areas,” maritime coordinating minister and senior presidential adviser Luhut Panjaitan told Asia Times in a phone interview. “The people respect the military more than the police.”

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan says visitors and residents returning from Labaran, the post-Ramadan holiday, will be refused entry to the capital unless they are carrying a permit that includes evidence they have undergone recent blood and swab tests.

The TNI deployment will also cover two other provinces, West Sumatra and Gorontalo, in northern Sulawesi, and 25 regencies and municipalities, the only areas which followed the lead of Jakarta and West Java in imposing large-scale social restrictions from the outset.

Known as PSBB, the criteria was implemented in early April and requires Health Ministry approval to receive recognition of official compliance. Some of the country’s 34 provinces failed to meet the standard, but the vast majority simply applied less stringent rules or few rules at all.

Panjaitan, a retired general, believes progress is being made in attacking the pandemic. “Coordination in the (Covid-19) task force is better and the data we are receiving now is better,” he said, appearing to counter criticism about the army’s dominant role in tackling the pandemic.

Indonesian army prepares to unload boxes of personal protective equipment (PPE) from military cargo aircraft in Ngurah Rai Air Force Base in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia on April 11 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Johanes Christo

Even Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, who took heavy fire for initially ignoring the seriousness of the rapidly spreading crisis, is a military doctor – and then a radiologist rather than a virologist or a specialist in public health.

The head of the national Covid-19 Task Force is Lieutenant-General Doni Monardo, while the Asian Games athlete’s village in north Jakarta, which has been converted into a special coronavirus hospital, is run by the military’s surgeon-general.

But Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) researchers Evan Laksamana and Rage Taufika reported in a recent paper that although retired and active officers are at the forefront of the fight, the TNI has not been fully mobilized as an organizational actor.

Most analysts say that’s unlikely to happen unless there is a breakdown in political and economic stability, the one thing Widodo wants to avoid as he juggles the twin demands of Covid-19 and the ever-present threat of social unrest. 

The president has been criticized for moving too slowly, sending mixed messages and constantly shifting his approach. Like many world leaders, however, he has no playbook to work from and often gives the impression he is making things up as he goes along.

Policy-makers and businessmen, who have been generally compliant up to now, agree the government can’t afford to wait until the pandemic is completely under control or it risks causing permanent damage to an economy that may see negative growth in the second quarter.

Panjaitan could not confirm how long the soldiers would stay on the streets, but he and Monardo have both said the government is worried about the period after Labaran, especially with people returning from East Java and Surabaya, the country’s second biggest city.

East Java has experienced the sharpest increase in the number of Covid-19 cases this month, which local residents have blamed more on a failure to implement social distancing restrictions than on visitors from Jakarta spreading the virus.

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

The East Java provincial government never adopted the PSBB protocols, but Surabaya, Sidoarjo, Malang and Batu  – just four of the province’s 38 administrative divisions – finally did on April 21. It was already too late judging by the steady rise in new cases that month.

New infections are now increasing by 500 per day, putting hospitals under pressure and leap-frogging East Java into second place overall behind Jakarta, where the pace of infections has slowed appreciably and authorities are preparing to reopen the city’s malls on June 4.

For all that, the use of the military as enforcers, which Widodo has resisted up to now, partly reflects the president’s unhappiness at the failure of many citizens to wear masks and maintain other social distancing precautions.

As of May 27, Indonesia had 23,135 cases and 1,418 deaths; of those, 6,895 infections and 509 deaths were in Jakarta and 2,974 cases and 208 deaths were in West Java and Banten, the provinces surrounding the capital.

But many regions outside of Java continue to confound experts with few infections and little anecdotal evidence that the pandemic has had any real impact at all.

Leading those is Aceh, the Sharia-ruled region on the tip of Sumatra island, which has only 19 recorded cases and no deaths. A recent front page picture showed worshippers crammed together in a mosque, many of them without masks.

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

The tourist island of Bali, initially seen as a potential disaster area because of its many Chinese visitors and cruise ship employees, presents an equally baffling case. So far it has recorded only 407 cases and four deaths, all the fatalities from weeks ago.

Twenty of Indonesia’s provinces have 10 or less Covid-19 deaths, with the Bangka Belitung Islands south of Singapore and East Nusa Tenggara, part of the island chain east of Bali, still recording only one fatality.

Interestingly, Widodo has picked out neighboring West Nusa Tenggara, along with East Java, South Sulawesi, South Sumatra, South Kalimantan and Papua, as provinces deserving of special attention because of escalating rates of infection.

Transportation data suggests only a minority of Jakartans actually defied the government’s ban on mudik, the annual post-Ramadan pilgrimage to home towns and villages which normally takes place in the week after the fasting month.

But it has been difficult to draw conclusions about population movements because as many as 1.3 million people are estimated to have left Greater Jakarta by mid-April, before the start of Ramadan, either because they had lost their jobs or were on furlough.

Still, the fact that traffic on toll roads leading out of the capital was down to a comparative trickle on May 23 showed people generally heeded messages on billboards, television and radio that they should resist traveling home until later in the year.

Figures released by the state-owned PT Jasa Maga toll road company showed 46,580 vehicles passing through the Trans-Java Highway’s main Cikampek gate on the city’s eastern outskirts on May 17-19, then just 17,230 on May 20 and 9,700 a day later.

It was the same story on the western edge of the city, where 77,360 vehicles used the expressway leading to Merak, the ferry crossing to Sumatra, on May 17-19. By May 21, that number was down to 20,120, nothing like mudik’s normal bumper-to-bumper traffic.