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Most Read of 2021: Indonesia’s COVID-19 Crisis

04 Jan 2022
By Edward Aspinall
People waiting in line in Jakarta for provision of free Sinovac vaccinations. Source: Satriyo Sembodo/Shutterstock.

At the height of a crisis of such heart-rendering intensity, it can be difficult to think analytically. But plenty of Indonesians themselves are asking the obvious question: How could it get so bad?

Over the last two to three weeks, all the grim signs we have come to associate with a health system in collapse have arrived in Indonesia: hospitals overwhelmed, the sick being treated in waiting rooms, parking lots, or emergency tents; others dying isolated in their homes; desperate people struggling to obtain oxygen tanks for relatives struggling to breathe. For those of us with friends and colleagues in Indonesia, every day we open social media to pass on best wishes to a new clutch of people who have become infected or sick, express condolences to those who have lost loved ones, and learn of our own friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who have died.

The country achieved the tragic milestone of topping the world in both new cases and deaths a few days back. Since then, reported infections have begun to slow, though health experts warn that testing rates are also lower, so the wave may not yet have peaked. There are reports of it spreading beyond Java, reaching even remote rural communities.

Part of the reason things have gotten so bad is, of course, the spread of the Delta variant, which has been ripping through much of Southeast Asia, not just Indonesia. Countries which in 2020 were widely seen as COVID-19 success stories, such as Malaysia and Thailand, are also experiencing surges. The situation is especially dire in Myanmar, already straining under the social collapse precipitated by February’s coup.

Part of the reason for Indonesia’s crisis, we should also remember, is the global inequity that underpins the world’s vaccine rollout. While countries like the US and UK have rushed to vaccinate their own populations, and are thus now experiencing their own Delta waves with relatively low levels of fatalities, Indonesia’s overall vaccination rate is around six percent, with most Indonesians receiving the generally less effective Sinovac vaccine.

But there is also a sense in which every COVID-19 crisis can be seen as a government failure. This is especially so for crises occurring this late in the pandemic, when crucial lessons should have been learned. The varieties of government failure—warnings unheeded, health systems unprepared, politicians focused on other matters, decision-makers skeptical of the risks—now seem as familiar as the crises they cause. Yet every country fails in its own distinctive way.

In Indonesia that story of failure begins with a president and ruling circle who, from the outset, strongly focused on the potential economic impacts of the crisis, rather than foregrounding the health dimensions. The reasons for this choice may be traced to the president’s own single-minded focus on economic development. From the start of his term, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has seen his political fortune tied to his ability to deliver strong economic growth and improvements in living standards, having arguably over-learned the lessons of recent Indonesian history. Back in 1998, he witnessed an entire system of government—the New Order regime of President Suharto—come crashing down in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. This focus has helped make President Jokowi popular, but it also produced what the Jakarta Post recently called an “overall pandemic strategy, which is more oriented toward protecting the economy than saving lives.”

Through various waves of the pandemic, Indonesia’s national government has repeatedly demonstrated reluctance to take control measures that would harm the economy, continually lagging when it comes to restricting people’s movements and economic activities. In June, as daily case numbers began to approach 10,000 and the first reports came in of hospitals turning patients away, the government tightened restrictions in so-called “red zones.” But it did so in a way that was half-hearted, for example at first allowing offices and restaurants to remain open at 25 percent capacity, and closing shopping malls only after 8:00 at night. These restrictions were soon tightened, and then extended to the whole country. By then, it was too late.

And this was not for lack of warning. Throughout the pandemic, a clear-sighted cohort of public health experts and activists have repeatedly sounded the alarm bells. In mid-June, epidemiologists were warning that Indonesia’s surge would only worsen, and that the health system was on the verge of collapse. Indonesia is a country with very strong traditions of civic voluntarism, so civil society groups and volunteers have stepped forward to fill in the gaps. But throughout, the national government has always seemed two steps behind.

This laggardness comes on top of other problems— such as underdeveloped testing and contract tracing systems—which reflect longstanding underinvestment and poor capacity in the healthcare system. Indonesia has relatively low public spending on health even compared to its Southeast Asian neighbours, and it has a political system that encourages patronage politics rather than competition to deliver better government services. The result is a healthcare system that—even before the current surge was placing great strains on its largely female workforce.

For much of the pandemic, President Jokowi seemed to be surviving the crisis politically. Public opinion polls showed that many ordinary Indonesians shared his concerns about the economic effects of the crisis, and public satisfaction with the president remained high. He even made use of the crisis to achieve key political goals. For instance, last year, he pushed through parliament an Omnibus Law that contained numerous controversial provisions on issues such as the weakening of environmental and employment protections. The government has also become increasingly intolerant of critics—for instance, trying to purge Islamists from public office, and expelling many of the investigators from the highly-respected Corruption Eradication Commission—in line with broader trends of democratic decline witnessed during the COVID-19 era.

Under the impact of the current wave of infections and healthcare-system collapse, it now  seems that Jokowi’s popularity has begun to falter. A new poll shows that public trust that the president could handle the pandemic has fallen to 43 percent, from 56.5 percent in February. The president has, in turn, been increasing the tenor of his own rhetoric , as well as engaging in publicity exercises, such as through his trademark meet-the-people forays to poor neighbourhoods, where he hands out assistance packages and medicines. Meant to highlight the government’s assistance program and demonstrate his own concern, many Indonesians decried these visits as pointless stunts.

We don’t yet know how long the devastating situation in Indonesia will persist. India’s experience shows that a country, once it is paralyzed by fear, can pull away from the peak of a Delta wave. But India’s current situation is hardly ideal—it is still reporting hundreds of deaths a day. In coming weeks, it is hoped that Indonesia’s wave will also recede, and that political leaders will have learned lessons in the meantime. At the moment, that looks doubtful—on 20 July Jokowi cited falling case numbers, without mentioning falling testing numbers, when foreshadowing a relaxation of restrictions on 26 July. And the effort to vaccinate enough of Indonesia’s population of more than 270 million people—over 170 million adults—to make a difference will remain a massive challenge well into 2022.

This article was originally published on 22 July 2021. It is one of the top ten most read articles published in Australian Outlook in 2021.

Edward Aspinall researches Indonesian politics at the Australian National University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.