Indonesians wearing protective masks attend the burial of a Covid-19 victim at Pondok Ranggon cemetery in Jakarta, Indonesia on September 9, 2020. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Anton Raharjo

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan has set off a political firestorm and triggered a sweeping reassessment of economic growth projections by ordering the virtual lockdown of Indonesia’s capital without first clearing the move with the central government.

“We have no other choice than to pull on the emergency brake,” said Baswedan, a former education minister and potential 2024 presidential candidate who clashed with President Joko Widodo over similar lockdown measures earlier this year.

Government sources said Baswedan had not sought approval from the Health Ministry, as he should have, before making the September 9 announcement. The surprise order caused the Jakarta Stock Exchange to suspend trading as bank stocks in particular tumbled.

Due to go into force on September 14, large-scale social restrictions are being re-imposed as new cases multiply by 1,000 a day – a third of the national total of about 3,000 cases a day– and the isolation bed occupancy rate in city hospitals nears 80%.

While it is unclear why he failed to consult with the central government, Baswedan appeared to be acting on warnings from medical experts that without a renewed clampdown hospitals could soon be overwhelmed. 

Asked if the decision could be reversed, one well-placed official told Asia Times: “I think it will have to stick because the government doesn’t want to make the people confused.”

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan has unilaterally ordered a new Covid-19 lockdown for Jakarta. Image: Facebook

The latest move, which will also affect the surrounding province of West Java, comes as Widodo’s embattled government struggles to keep the coronavirus at bay while hoping for the arrival of a widely-accepted vaccine sometime next year.

It has also revealed once again the dilemma Widodo and his advisers have been in since the beginning of the crisis, dealing with the virus on one hand and trying to cushion the economic fallout on the other.

Certainly, Economic Coordinating Minister Airlangga Hartarto was clearly annoyed at Baswedan’s action, saying it was important to know when to apply the “gas or the brakes” to maintain public confidence in the capital markets and the economy.

With Jakarta accounting for about 20% of gross domestic product (GDP), analysts have warned that the decision could cause the economy to contract for a third consecutive quarter and, depending on the duration of the semi-lockdown, threaten hopes for a recovery in 2021.

Currently, the full-year growth projection varies between -1.1% and +0.2%, but as one banker put it: “That’s now off the table. Anies went off half-cocked on this. For the first time, I’m now worried.”

Confused messaging, a Widodo government weak point, has made it difficult for analysts and observers to decipher the government’s pandemic strategy. In the end, the government’s plan can only be characterized as a holding action. 

Asked if it could be called containment, a government official who briefed this correspondent on the pandemic was slow to respond. Then he replied: “No, it’s the new normal” – the buzz phrase for wearing masks and physical distancing.

Indonesian people queue to get on a train bound for Jakarta from Bogor station by applying protocols for the Covid-19 coronavirus in Bogor, August 3, 2020. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

“New normal has been a total failure,” says one senior diplomat, noting that while many workers have been wearing masks on the street, they let their guard down once they begin mingling with fellow workers in the office or factory.

Government actions aside, the mind-boggling stream of graphs and figures being trotted out each day have long become a point of contention, accepted as gospel in some quarters and with extreme skepticism in others.

But official data is still the only yardstick for measuring the outbreak and its effects. Skeptics, including many epidemiologists, claim the real figure for infections is five, eight or ten times greater than officially acknowledged 210,000 cases. But those countervailing views remain just as unreliable. 

It has been like this for months, but more recently the official rate of new infections has surgedto 3,000-3,800 per day as businesses have gradually opened up and Jakarta, Surabaya and other big cities return to congested normality.

The time-lapse suggests the spike in cases can be traced back to the mid-August vacation break, similar to what occurred in East Java during the post-Ramadan holiday last May. 

As time passes, it is has become an increasingly difficult story to tell if the intention is to avoid alarmism and to provide a balanced appraisal of an unfolding drama that clearly has no end in sight.

Although the number of cases pales in comparison with the United States, Brazil and India, Indonesia’s medical community believes the virus is out of control. “All my colleagues think so,” says one prominent specialist. “And they’re very scared.”

Complicated as it may be by same-day burials as required under Islam and poor reporting, Indonesia’s official death toll of 8,336, leaving the world’s fourth most populous country in 19th place on the WHO’s list of fatalities, has seemed easier to verify.

Tombstones at a burial site for victims of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Jakarta on September 11, 2020. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

But in a rare venture into enterprise reporting, the Jakarta Globe this week said city government data shows 32,110 burials in the first eight months of this year, compared to 33,649 for the whole of 2019 – the highest death rate in a decade.

The Globe reported 157 burials a day in August alone, double the month’s historical average of 82 funerals, according to city hall’s records going back to 2010.

Among them are some of the 109 doctors who have given their lives during the pandemic and which the country can ill afford to lose when it has only eight physicians per 10,000 people.

Still, for all of Indonesia’s current travails, the one unanswered question is why Southeast Asia has escaped the worst of the pandemic. The cumulative 510,000 cases and 12,573 deaths, mostly in Indonesia and the Philippines, places the entire region of over 650 million behind 10 individual countries.

Like many world leaders, Widodo continues to engage in a balancing act, often slammed for not paying enough attention to the health crisis in his efforts to limit unemployment and keepthe economy afloat.

Managing a country of 270 million people is difficult enough, but tackling a pandemic has no rule book, particularly for someone from the rural heartland whose view of the world is often measured by the foreign investment he can muster.

It should be no surprise that Widodo’s team has made many missteps, the latest being his claim that the virus will reach a peak at the end of this month and that a vaccine will be available by the end of the year.

Right now, that looks like wishful thinking. So does his belief that the economy will start to recover in the final two months of the year, giving the country a shot at 5% growth in 2021. The new lockdown strengthens the view that recovery will take much longer.  

The main complaint has always been the lack of testing and why the government does not give it greater priority. At 2.5 million total tests, it remains one of the lowest in the world as a percentage of the population, far below the World Health Organization’s standard of one test per 1,000 people.

A medical staff member takes a swab sample from a woman to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus in Denpasar, Bali, June 7, 2020. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

Baswedan claimed this week that 18.4% of those tested had proven positive for the virus, compared to Jakarta’s 13.2%. Both those figures are much higher than what the Health Ministry has reported and far exceed the WHO’s 5% benchmark for social restrictions to be relaxed. 

Another complaint has been the consistent mixed messaging from Widodo and other national and regional leaders, many of whom appear to be blowing hot and cold on the protocols necessary to limit the spread of the virus.

There is even concern that governors and mayors may be suppressing the figures being passed on to the Health Ministry and the national Covid-19 Task Force to improve their chances in December’s scheduled regional elections.

August has been the worst month so far in terms of new cases, with an average of 600 infections a day in Jakarta alone. That was an 87% increase over July. On the bright side of the ledger, the national recovery rate is now 72.1%, better than the global average of 69%.

After appearing to be almost immune to the virus in its early months, Bali is now only the eighth province to accumulate more than 5,000 infections with a hospital bed occupancy of 98%, the highest in the country. 

According to the Health Ministry, 11 of the 34 provinces have bed occupancy rates that exceed the national average of 43% – an indication where most of the Covid-19 infections seem to be concentrated across the archipelago.

Overall, the government has sought to improve its response to fresh outbreaks of the virus, with newly-formed Covid-19 units in each district empowered to apply emergency restrictions when they deem it necessary.

In recent weeks, the Jakarta suburbs of Depok and Bogor have both imposed dusk to dawn curfews in response to rising infection rates. Now the entire city faces lockdowns, with mosques closed to worshippers and office workers told to stay at home. It is becoming a familiar open-and-shut pattern.