Indonesia’s ability to overcome the twin economic and public health crises wrought by Covid-19 was always going to be a tall order.
But President Joko Widodo’s recently announced “New Normal” policy, intended to reboot Indonesia’s slumping economy, is being rolled out alongside deliberate efforts to mislead and obscure the scale of the epidemic’s risk.
Experts have warned that a premature approach to economic recovery could risk exposing Indonesians to further outbreaks and deeper, longer-term economic disruptions.
Last month, prominent emergency response expert Dr. Corona Rintawan left Indonesia’s Covid-19 National Taskforce.
The physician shared his view with Asia Times that the Covid-19 pandemic is bringing out the worst in the Indonesian government, underscoring how Widodo’s “New Normal” directive may invite more infections and confusion rather than chart a safe way forward.
“We have a chronic deficiency in testing and tracking. Our capacity to conduct PCR testing is nowhere near the target of 20,000 tests per day. But now everything is being relaxed, the economy is being rebooted, schools are reopening, religious mass gathering(s) are being allowed – all in the name of this ‘New Normal’ narrative,” said Corona.
“It seems that ministries are trying to show their support for the president by competing to implement this concept of ‘New Normal’ in the shortest possible time, regardless of whether communities are ready or if the measures are even necessary,” he said.
Corona said that if the reopening of the economy, along with other social and religious activities, is not supported by measures to strengthen the healthcare system it could lead to “an explosion of infections.”
He said without clear regulations and sanctions that the ‘New Normal’ policy will be a figleaf for reopening the economy whilst ignoring expert scientific advice warning the government against downplaying the scale of infections, fatalities and the likelihood of a new wave of mass infections. The government acknowledged over 1,000 new daily cases on June 6.
“There was a huge spike announced just recently. It was traced back to two weeks ago, which possibly coincided with Eid ul-Fitr celebrations. People were still praying together, although Muhammadiyah was firm in its advice telling people to stay at home.
“These new clusters of infection will lead to further spikes in infections later on. When you say ‘new normal’ people will just assume it means everything can now go back to normal,” explained Corona.
In Indonesia, like many other countries in Southeast Asia, the Covid-19 pandemic has not caused a public health crisis on the scale seen in countries like Brazil, the United Kingdom, the United States and Italy, to name but a few.
The National Covid-19 Taskforce reports that 1,801 people, or approximately 0.0007% of Indonesia’s total population of around 275 million, have died from Covid-19. The officially confirmed number of infections, now at over 30,500, does however point to a high case fatality rate of around 6%.
Now, many are concerned that Widodo’s government is deliberately holding back on mass-testing and under-reporting fatalities among people quarantined or under-surveillance.
One citizen reporting initiative set up by journalists and academics, known as Lapor Covid-19, estimates that the actual number of fatalities may be two to three times higher than officially reported.
Corona said that is because local governments are reluctant to push back on the “New Normal” policy for fear of being blamed for new outbreaks.
“Take for instance when a patient classified as ‘under surveillance’ dies and a few days later it becomes known that they were positive for Covid-19. Some local governments, and I won’t say which ones, reported at the time that the deceased was negative for Covid-19 despite the test results still pending,” said Corona.
“This is because they don’t want to get into trouble if the number of fatalities subsequently rises. Which local leaders want to be blamed while ‘New Normal’ is being implemented?”
By the end of May, the National Covid-19 Taskforce reported some 300,545 tests had been carried out for 205,165 people. This puts the country’s Covid-19 testing levels at around 1,100 per million. This is roughly on par with Afghanistan, home to one of the lowest levels of testing anywhere in the world.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati has announced another raft of Covid-19 economic stimulus funding to the tune of $48 billion. Some $6.3 billion, or 13% of this funding, is earmarked for healthcare.
And yet Covid-19 rapid and PCR testing is not being provided for free or on the scale necessary for Indonesian health and emergency services to accurately measure or analyze the number infections in the country. Nor are they prepared to quickly identify and thus contain the onset of new waves of the epidemic.
The healthcare component of the new stimulus funding includes some $400 million in allowances and incentives for medical staff working on Covid-19.
Tellingly, the reaction to this announcement has been lukewarm among health workers, reflecting widely felt disappointment with earlier promises of special allowances that reportedly never materialized.
The new Covid-19 budget’s biggest chunk of funding is for welfare support, much of which takes the form of cash handouts, food aid and electricity subsidies.
Across the country, governors, mayors, and ministers have spared no effort or expense in staging photo-ops with smiling beneficiaries receiving cash handouts and food aid. However, despite a substantial increase in that largesse, the targeting and fairness of beneficiary selection is under rising scrutiny.
Indonesia’s National Audit Board officials recently exposed the Ministry for Social Affairs for using outdated poverty data from 2014. Local governments’ inability or unwillingness to update and maintain their welfare recipient databases has also hindered aid delivery.
Congressman Achsanul Qosasi, a member of the National Audit Board, highlighted the fact that 20 million families on welfare lists did not have matching social security identification codes. The National Audit Board later discovered that approximately $1 billion was sitting unused in government bank accounts at the end of May due to confusion over welfare recipient data.
Meanwhile, the multitude of overlapping cash handouts, food aid and welfare schemes has confused poor and low-income families, with many struggling to comprehend how and where to apply for aid.
Money politics is a factor. Village functionaries, mayors, and other elected local officials are widely perceived to maintain welfare databases weighted heavily in favor of their supporters.
High voter density areas on the island of Java report upwards of 90% service delivery, whereas more remote areas in the eastern parts of Indonesia such as Maluku and Papua have not received anywhere near the same level of Covid-19 assistance.
Those that have received the cash assistance are entitled to 600,000 rupiah (US$42) per household per month for three months between April and June, which is then halved for another three months until September. The amount is insufficient for families to buy even basic essentials. Should they want or need a Covid-19 test, they must pay out of pocket.
Significantly, free testing is not covered in the $48 billion Covid-19 relief and economic stimulus budget. Tests in Indonesia are not cheap either, costing around $25-30 for a rapid test and $70-150 for a DNA swab, or “PCR”, test.
Despite the signs of incompetence and obfuscation, Widodo has not replaced a single member of his cabinet. With indications that the true state of Covid-19 infections and fatalities are being underreported, Widodo’s premature rush to resume normality risks leading the country into new and bigger viral outbreaks.
James P. Bean has worked for various humanitarian organizations on crises in Indonesia, Uganda, Libya, and Thailand. The views expressed are his own.