The sequence of denial, reluctance, and alarm in Indonesia’s response to the coronavirus crisis follows the trajectory of many other countries, including highly developed nations. Concerned about their economic impact, President Joko Widodo delayed containment measures and relied on unproven claims that tropical weather would slow down transmission in the world’s fourth most populous country. The bet did not pay off. Indonesia now faces a collapsing health system, an economic recession that could wipe out two decades of development gains, and the looming threat of social unrest.
No one can fault leaders for trying to maintain economic stability in Indonesia, where the devastation of the 1997 Asian financial crisis is seared into political memory. However, the government’s disregard for data, reliance on military personnel for crisis management, and political score-settling steered it away from a balancing act between the economy and health toward a strategy that has delivered worse results for both.
From Crisis to Catastrophe
After months of denying undetected coronavirus cases, the government confirmed its first infected patient in March. By then Indonesia’s neighbors were already rolling out mass testing and mobility restrictions to contain community spread. Widodo ruled out lockdowns, citing their harsh economic impact in other developing countries like India, but reluctantly allowed limited school closures and suggested that people work from home.
In the absence of strict containment measures, Indonesia’s coronavirus deaths surged to become the highest in Southeast Asia. As of April 28, the government’s official count of positive cases surpassed 9,500 after tests were performed on 62,000 people, less than 0.02 percent of the total population. The country has recorded 773 deaths, including more than 40 doctors and nurses. The government also acknowledged the presence of over 213,000 suspected cases waiting to be tested.
The escalating crisis prompted the declaration of a national health emergency and the imposition of social distancing measures in Jakarta and other affected regions. Nationwide restrictions on commercial travel by air, sea, and land are now in effect. New equipment is being imported to ramp up testing, and efforts are underway to manufacture personal protective equipment for medical staff and urgently needed ventilators for patients. On March 13, the president announced a stimulus package worth $8 billion, which includes $324 million in assistance for low-income households.
These interventions may have come too late. According to the government’s own projections, 95,000 infections will be confirmed by the end of May. Independent researchers from the University of Indonesia predict 1.7 million infections and 144,000 deaths. Despite efforts to avoid a shutdown, Southeast Asia’s largest economy is in turmoil, with predictions of contraction by 0.4 percent that could plunge more than 9 million people into poverty. The latest survey data presents an even bleaker picture: 25 percent of adults (50 million people) report that they are already unable to meet their daily needs, creating concerns about urban riots.
Indonesia could not have prevented the impact of the coronavirus altogether. Despite its middle-income status, it has the lowest per capita health expenditure among major regional economies. However, as one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, Indonesia has considerable experience mobilizing localized emergency responses. Far from perfect, past management of the SARS epidemic (2003), the Boxing Day tsunami (2004), and the Avian flu outbreak (2006) have been at least minimally competent. This time, three major flaws in the government’s approach prevented it from mobilizing even the limited resources that were at its disposal to mitigate the crush of a global pandemic.
First, a deep disregard for data in the administration created a false sense of choice: instead of preparing for the inevitable, officials looked for ways to avoid a response. While senior officials peddled unsubstantiated theories about the mild impact of the coronavirus in tropical weather, beleaguered doctors beseeched the president to ignore flawed advice and scientists complained about being shut out of the process.
Widodo has defended his administration’s response by noting scientists’ inability to provide definitive forecasts about coronavirus. But the government’s suppression of data on infection rates has only compounded this uncertainty, with deadly consequences.
In collecting official data, the Health Ministry initially insisted on counting only polymerase chain reaction tests performed in a single facility in Jakarta, ignoring the surge in suspected cases and positive results from the rapid antibody tests conducted by regional governments. Unconvinced by official figures, journalists pieced together data from cemeteries, medical records, and governors’ tallies to reveal that more than 2,200 suspected patients have died while awaiting tests.
Widodo admitted that data was concealed to prevent mass panic. More disturbingly, his administration used this flawed data to defer critical interventions. The delayed timing of ongoing measures to improve detection by distributing new testing equipment to regional labs compromises their effectiveness. Amid already high infection rates, testing may not stem contagion unless supplemented with mass isolation facilities for infected persons in densely populated cities, where people live in close quarters with large families.
Containment efforts also came late. A national task force to coordinate the government’s response was only formed in mid-March after a direct call from the World Health Organization. The declaration of a health emergency, providing the legal basis for social distancing measures, took another two weeks. Relatively lax by global standards, these restrictions did not prohibit domestic travel in and out of affected regions despite widespread fear of contagion. Ministers insisted that the low official estimate of deaths did not warrant stricter measures for the remaining 270 million people. The government finally banned most commercial travel on April 24 in a bid to prevent the annual Eid exodus of 20 million people, but an estimated 1.6 million had already made the journey.
Apart from delays, the ill-conceived sequencing of containment measures has accelerated both the health crisis and its economic fallout. Early on, the president wanted to avoid a regional lockdown due to its economic impact on the informal sector, which comprises nearly 60 percent of Indonesia’s workforce. However, his suggestion to work from home was adopted in urban areas by white collar workers, who are served by the informal workforce. Without their primary source of income or government aid, food vendors, barbers, and online motorbike drivers returned to their hometowns, exposing new communities to the virus.
Second, military dominance in the management of the health crisis has produced an untenable combination of disarray and draconian law enforcement. All personnel in charge of coordinating the crisis response are retired army officers. This includes the head of the disaster management task force, the national spokesman on the coronavirus crisis, the health minister, the religious minister, the minister of maritime affairs and investment, the defense minister, and the president’s chief of staff. Widodo’s administration has the highest concentration of military personnel of any cabinet since the fall of Suharto’s military dictatorship in 1998.
A crisis of this scale anywhere in the world would require logistical support from the military. But the predominance of military personnel in top civilian posts has securitized Indonesia’s response to coronavirus. Widodo initially considered responding to the health crisis by declaring a civil emergency, which is legally reserved for fighting rebellions and civil war. Pushback from civil society groups prevented this move, but shortly thereafter the national police chief issued instructions to arrest individuals accused of causing offense to the president and other officials. At least 76 critics have since been detained, including a researcher who published an article about possible errors in the government’s coronavirus data.
The security focus of the administration has also prevented it from effectively mobilizing civilian sources of authority. Like other Asian countries, Indonesia maintains an extensive structure of neighborhood associations that collect health data and ensure public compliance with the government’s vaccination drives and family planning programs. Leaders of these associations also serve as the first point of contact in coordinating the government’s disaster response.
Instead of devising a national strategy to enforce containment measures through these grassroots bodies, the government ordered neighborhood leaders to use their discretion in responding to the crisis. In the absence of clear instructions or resources, community-level interventions are in disarray. Some neighborhood leaders have coordinated delivery of aid, and others have imposed local lockdowns. However, a growing number have responded by evicting exposed medical staff along with suspected patients and have also refused burial of victims.
Politicizing the Crisis
Finally, the administration’s politicization of the health crisis has impaired its ability to coordinate an effective response with regional leaders and civil society groups. This is most visible in the ongoing turf war between the central government and Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, who became the president’s bitter rival in 2016 after defeating his longtime ally in a religiously charged gubernatorial race.
Despite the fact that Baswedan’s Islamist allies have urged their followers to cancel religious gatherings and postpone travel, the president’s supporters have accused him of playing politics. In fact, the central government has systematically undermined Baswedan’s efforts to manage the crisis. Even though Jakarta is the nation’s coronavirus epicenter, his requests to impose social distancing measures were repeatedly denied. After the declaration of a nationwide health emergency, his request was held up further by the health minister and only approved after days of haggling over data.
The government’s relationship with civil society groups also continues to worsen even as their support remains critical for managing the crisis. In the middle of a pandemic, the parliament announced plans for a speedy passage of two highly unpopular bills. One is the criminal code that triggered deadly demonstrations last year and the other is a labor deregulation bill that was rejected by workers’ unions. Deliberations were finally suspended this week to avoid potentially violent clashes after unions issued a call for protests in defiance of mobility restrictions.
Short-Sighted Measures With Long-Term Costs
Apart from the alarming human tragedy that looms ahead, missteps in the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic may affect Indonesia’s long-term political trajectory in three ways. One is the acceleration of military resurgence in civilian affairs, already well underway in the current administration. Public outcry may have prevented the imposition of civil emergency in March, but it cannot be ruled out as the crisis unfolds. Handing emergency powers to security agencies without effective civilian oversight could deal a severe blow to two decades of struggle for civil liberties in Indonesia.
Second, ongoing power plays between the central and regional governments may force a reevaluation of Indonesia’s decentralization laws, which devolve power to districts and relegate governors to the role of a coordinator. The disjointed national response to the coronavirus and district governments’ inability to mount large-scale interventions has exposed the failings of this arrangement. Governors have emerged as effective intermediaries in the crisis by synchronizing district responses and forcing the center’s hand when necessary. Moving forward, their authority may have to be strengthened to streamline governance across the archipelago.
Finally, citizens’ trust in government could become another tragic casualty of the crisis. Indonesians are no strangers to coping with the devastation of natural disasters or to overcoming slow government intervention with community-based responses. Hopes were high when Widodo was elected on the basis of his administrative credentials, but civil society groups have once again had to compensate for the lack of a coherent government response with heroic generosity. Underpaid policewomen are donating their salaries, students at underfunded universities are testing low-cost ventilators, and unprotected doctors are creating digital platforms to treat their patients. This time, however, it seems that Indonesians’ resilience may be tested as much by the unprecedented scale of the global pandemic as by the magnitude of their government’s ineptitude.
Correction note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indonesia has the highest number of coronavirus deaths, not total cases, in Southeast Asia.