President Joko Widodo issued an emergency regulation on Covid-19 that includes a provision making government officials immune from criminal prosecution for mismanagement of the pandemic. Photo by Hafidz Mubarak A for Antara.


Covid-19 is a test for all nations. Around the world, governments have dramatically increased their powers to deal with the crisis. Some have been successful in controlling the outbreak while protecting citizens’ rights, such as New Zealand and Germany. Indonesia has failed at both.


In Indonesia, the crisis has become a means for political and business elites to further accumulate power and money. Indonesia’s illiberal nature – characterised by the relative absence of the rule of law and pervasiveness of corruption – has made it possible for dominant interests to exploit the crisis instead of addressing it for the general good.


Indonesia’s handling of Covid-19 has been the worst in Southeast Asia. The mortality rate of its health workers is the highest in the world. This is not simply a result of the leadership style of the President, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who was slow to respond and displayed a lack of strategic thinking, as many have argued. Indonesia’s failures go much further.

Inadequate social assistance

On 30 March, President Jokowi announced the government would be implementing large-scale social restrictions (PSBB) rather than territorial quarantines, or lockdowns. At one point, Jokowi even floated the possibility of declaring a civil emergency, which would have suspended normal rules and massively increased government power.


The government’s motives in implementing PSBB look suspect because under the Health Quarantine Law (Law No. 6 of 2018), if it applies a territorial quarantine, the central government automatically becomes responsible for the basic needs of all residents in the region. There is no such obligation when PSBB are applied.


Further, the government’s claims that it has increased spending for the poor due to Covid-19 are misleading. Jokowi has announced social assistance worth Rp 110 trillion (A$11.6 billion), including the Family Hope Program (PKH), the staple food program, the pre-employment program and free electricity. He claimed on 31 March that the government had increased the number of recipients of the PKH program from 9.2 million to 10 million households and the amount of cash assistance by 25%.


But the Social Affairs Ministry was making similar claims about increasing assistance by 25% more than a month earlier. Likewise, Presidential Regulation No. 61 of 2019 (passed well before the pandemic began) also stated that the government has increased the number of PKH recipients from 9.2 million to 10 million.


Except for free electricity, social safety net program budgets were all allocated before the outbreak. Jokowi’s claims of extra Covid-19 spending are simply efforts to boost his popularity amid public disappointment in his handling of the outbreak.

Conflicts of interest

At least two of the president’s special staff have been involved in conflicts of interest in relation to Covid-19 relief funds.


The CEO of education startup Ruangguru, is presidential special staffer Adamas Belva Syah Devara. In April, it was revealed that Ruangguru had been appointed to manage part of the government’s pre-employment program, providing online training for laid-off workers.


Deputy Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Rudi Salahuddin admitted that Ruangguru and seven other companies were appointed without a tender process because of time constraints. Dismissing bidding processes for this Rp 200 million-plus project is a clear violation of government regulations on procurement.


Belva said he played no part in the appointment of Ruangguru, but following a massive backlash he resigned from his position as a special staffer.


The timing and content of the training programs are also suspect. Belva acknowledged that the selection process for the pre-employment program began in December 2019 – well before the Covid-19 outbreak. Further, the online training on offer is similar to training programs freely available on YouTube, and does not address the basic needs of laid-off workers, for example how to apply for new jobs. According to labour unions, what unemployed workers really need is social aid.


Another of the president’s special staff, Andi Taufan Garuda Putra, was also accused of abusing his position. He sent a letter to district heads on official government letterhead, requesting that they use his company, Amartha Mikro Fintek, for public education services in response to Covid-19.

Little accountability

The government’s Covid-19 response also gives it excessive power over the national budget. It has now published an emergency regulation in lieu of law (Perppu No. 1 of 2020), which allows the government to expand the budget deficit beyond the existing limit of 3 percent of GDP.


It has also taken the extraordinary step of including a provision stating that government officials are immune from criminal prosecution for mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, so long as they are implementing policy in ‘good faith’.


This situation is made worse by the weakened Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which activists fear will have little appetite for investigating Covid-19 related corruption.

Critics arrested 

On April 23, Ravio Patra, an activist who has been critical of how the government has managed the outbreak, is one example. The police accused him of attempting to incite people to riot through a WhatsApp message, which he said was sent when his phone was hacked.


Rights activists believe Ravio was framed because he had publicly criticised another of Jokowi’s special staff, Gracia Billy Yosaphat Mambrasar, over potential conflicts of interest in West Papua. Some activists believe that Mambrasar is closely linked to National Intelligence Agency (BIN) head Budi Gunawan.


Meanwhile, prominent human rights organisation KontraS reported that as of 8 April at least four people had been charged with insulting authorities after publicly criticising the government and Jokowi’s handling of Covid-19.


Such arrests were common even before the Covid-19 outbreak. Amnesty International has noted that during Jokowi’s first term (2014-2019) there were at least 203 criminal investigations made against those who criticised the government. Authorities appear to be using the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to use the law to further silence government critics.

Passing unrelated laws during the crisis

The government and the national legislature (DPR) are also exploiting the outbreak to hasten the deliberation of many controversial proposed laws that could open the way for the government to extend its powers.


The government has tried to push through the “omnibus” draft law on job creation (RUU Cipta Kerja), claiming it is needed to boost the economy amid the pandemic. The bill revises more than 80 existing laws to boost investment and simplify processes for business, but it would also further centralise authority in the national government.


Unions are concerned the bill harms labour rights, particularly those related to severance payments and compensation for laid-off workers. The bill also significantly lessons criminal punishment for businesses violating environmental protections. Likewise, building permits would be removed and environmental impact assessments would be greatly loosened as requirements for obtaining business licenses, encouraging even more unsustainable and destructive development.


After widespread criticism, Jokowi claimed on 24 April that the government and legislature had agreed to delay deliberation of the bill. But this statement was seemingly made to avoid widespread demonstrations on May Day – the legislature reportedly never received an official government letter requesting a delay of deliberations. On 27 April, the DPR held a virtual meeting continuing to discuss the bill.


While the government and legislature have yet to get their way with the “omnibus” bill, they have had some success. On 12 May, the DPR approved revisions to the 2009 Coal and Mineral Mining Law (RUU Minerba). Activists claims the revisions will protect corruptors, criminalise communities and endanger people and the environment.


The revised Coal and Mineral Mining Law was among the controversial bills that sparked massive student protests in September 2019. There are now renewed fears that the government will seek to revive the most contentious of these – the revised Criminal Code bill (RKUHP) – now that large scale protests are prohibited under Covid-19 related social restrictions.

Not simply incompetence

So far, many observers have attributed Indonesia’s failures in handling the Covid-19 outbreak to Jokowi’s incompetence and lack of strategic thinking. Many government officials were in denial over the virus and have not delivered effective responses to the outbreak. But this is not simply a matter of incompetence.


Focusing on the incapacity of the government obscures Indonesia’s illiberal nature. Bad governance and institutional weakness have long been entrenched in Indonesia, and the mess in dealing with the outbreak is better viewed as a consequence of Indonesia’s illiberal political and economic system.


Within this context, political and business elites have viewed the confused response as an opportunity to further their interests and increase their power and material resources. They have exploited the crisis for illiberal purposes and ignored the most vulnerable.



A longer version of this article was originally published on Melbourne Asia Review, as ‘Indonesia is exploiting the Covid-19 crisis for illiberal purposes’.


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