The Indonesian government’s early response to the coronavirus crisis has been marked by denial, complacency and a lack of transparency. Photo by Hafidz Mubarak A for Antara.


President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s lack of leadership and failure to respond tactically to the Covid-19 crisis has become increasingly clear over recent weeks. Indonesia now has the highest death rate from coronavirus in the world, suggesting that there are thousands of undetected cases in the community.


The Indonesian government’s response to the crisis has been marked by denial, complacency, and a lack of transparency about the location and number of positive cases.


Minister of Health Terawan Agus Putranto should take responsibility for the government’s failure to respond fast enough to Covid-19. He initially brushed off concerns about the virus, attacking Harvard researchers who warned that Indonesia likely had undetected cases, and said that Indonesia remained virus-free because of prayer.


The Health Ministry has been painfully slow to implement a proper testing regime. Indonesia is only now rolling out mass testing, at a time when community transmission already appears to be widespread.


Indonesia’s rate of testing is the lowest in the world. On 23 March, Indonesia had conducted just 2,438 tests, equivalent to just 0.02% of the 10 million residents of Jakarta, or 0.004% of the 49 million residents of West Java, the two provinces currently recording the most cases of Covid-19. At least six medical professionals have now died from the virus, contributing to fears that the country’s stretched public health system will soon be overwhelmed.


Terawan was an appalling pick as health minister even before he was faced with this extraordinary public health crisis. Questions have long been raised about the doctor, who is a favourite of the military elite, and his controversial “brain flushing” therapy, which has been criticised by medical scientists for failing to meet clinical standards.


But Terawan is not the sole advisor to the president. Observing global developments, the ministers of foreign affairs, social affairs, finance, and many others could have informed the president that a health and economic crisis was imminent. Did they not do so? Was there a malfunction of the cabinet process? Or did the president not heed his ministers’ warnings?


Early in his second term, Jokowi mentioned that there would be no ministerial agenda, only the agenda of the president and vice president. Ministers would be expected to follow the lead of the president and his VP. Jokowi listed several priorities for his second term: passing a series of “omnibus” laws to boost investment and economic growth, relocating the capital city to East Kalimantan, investing in human resources, ongoing bureaucratic reform and continued investment in infrastructure.


The first two of these priorities have taken up much of the president’s attention, and he instructed his cabinet to focus on these matters as well. Given his early response to the outbreak it appears his single-eyed focus on the economy led him to ignore the seriousness of the coronavirus threat.

Investment first, public health later

Jokowi has an ambitious plan to boost investment and economic growth in his second term. The government is promoting controversial “investor-friendly” omnibus laws to reform labour laws and revise the tax system, as well as several other contentious reforms, such as revisions to the Mining and Oil and Gas Laws.


Even as coronavirus was attacking China in January, Jokowi’s primary concern was still the economy. Jokowi led a cabinet meeting on 4 February in Bogor, West Java, where he noted that as China’s economy was slowing from the effects of the virus, Indonesia should try to capitalise on the situation and increase exports to countries usually dependent on Chinese goods.


He also noted that as many tourists were avoiding China, it could be an opportunity for Indonesian tourism. In mid-February, Jokowi announced the government was planning to offer discounts of up to 30% to attract domestic and foreign tourists. To the outrage of many online, the government even announced it had allocated Rp 72 billion ($A7.9 million) to “influencers” to promote Indonesian tourism and encourage more foreigners to visit the country.


It should be noted that this February cabinet meeting occurred at a time when many other countries were closing or considering closing their borders. Jokowi even mentioned Covid-19 in the context of the meeting, but it was as if it was a problem for other countries to deal with. As ever, his main focus was investment and the economy.

Political stability over transparency

The other key problem with the government’s management of the Covid-19 crisis has been a lack of transparency. The president and minister of health have refused to reveal to the location of confirmed coronavirus patients, even though doing so could help the public trace potential points of exposure.


Jokowi has already admitted that the government intentionally withheld some information about Covid-19 to avoid public panic. This seems to have been motivated by a misguided effort to prevent social unrest, which no doubt the president believes will be bad for the economy and investment.


The government’s lack of transparency has created tension with Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil, who have both provided information on the locations of positive cases. Both have been far more responsive and have said they would consider lockdowns if needed.


In response, however, Jokowi instructed Minister of Home Affairs Tito Karnavian to meet with Anies and Ridwan and remind them that lockdowns were the authority of central government, and that local governments should not contribute to panic.


At a time when the whole country should be focused on managing this public health crisis, the president and his inner circle seem more worried about Anies and Ridwan taking advantage of the situation to boost their profiles ahead of the 2024 Presidential Election. Neither figure is favoured as a successor by President Jokowi or his political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

What next?

Jokowi and his team have made important moves to fix their early mistakes. Jokowi has announced a mass rapid testing program and he has improved coordination with regional governments. His government is also transforming the 2018 Asian Games athlete’s village into an emergency hospital to deal with the growing number of ill people.


But there are other things the government still needs to do. First, Jokowi must delay, for a year at least, his plans for the omnibus laws, and focus on the impending public health disaster.


Second, the government must vastly improve transparency. The experience of several other countries has shown that transparency is one of the key factors in successfully containing the virus.


Last but not least, Indonesia needs a new minister of health, one who takes public health seriously. Terawan was already a mistake, even before Covid-19. His efforts over the last few months have shown he is far from up to the task of leading the Indonesian health system through the greatest test it has ever faced.


Jokowi needs to realise that the investor and business community are worried about his lack of leadership, and bumbling and incompetent ministers like Terawan. By prioritising public health over short-term economic gains, Jokowi would actually reassure the investment community that Indonesia is in the right hands.


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