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Jakarta Post

COVID-19: Mr. President, you need professional help

  • Endy Bayuni

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, March 13, 2020   /   12:25 pm
COVID-19: Mr. President, you need professional help President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo (left) and Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto announce the country's first two COVID-19 patients at the palace in Jakarta on March 2. (Antara/Sigid Kurniawan)

The Indonesian government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak has been appallingly amateurish, from the moment it started spreading in China in January to when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared on Wednesday in Geneva that COVID-19 was a global pandemic.

One big problem is its bad communication strategy, assuming that the government has one, which has exacerbated the crisis.

As Indonesia is finally starting to deal with the reality that the virus has hit home these last two weeks, we are seeing  problems caused by the government’s failure to communicate the coronavirus message effectively.

In the last two months, we have seen a series of missteps and miscommunications, including public gaffes by officials who should know better, in dealing with the emerging crisis.

At a time like this, the public is turning to the government as the most important source of information on how to deal with novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), especially now that it’s a global pandemic. Who else can they turn to?

Credibility is of the utmost importance, yet this is in huge deficit because of the government’s own actions and poor communication.

In this era of internet and social media, the government is competing with many other purveyors of news and information, including fake news and misinformation. Lest the government rebuilds its credibility, by being honest and open, it could put the nation in an even more dangerous situation by losing out in the information campaign.

Until the announcement of the first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 on March 2, the government had taken a laidback approach, even as the virus spread rapidly around the world.

For a while, Indonesia was going in the other direction, with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo proposing to spend Rp 72 billion (US$5.5 million) for social media influencers to send out the message to welcome tourists from around the world.

The President asked Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati to disburse the 2020 state budget as early as possible so  government ministries could spend it on travels for conferences and seminars in cities worst affected by the downturn in tourism arrivals.

When Saudi Arabia informed that Indonesia was included on the list of countries barred from visiting the kingdom for the umrah (minor haj), the government actually protested, demanding that Indonesia be exempt since it was a “coronavirus-free” country.

The government seems to have been caught by its own denials or lies, that rather than trying to contain the virus, it was already focusing on trying to deal with the economic fallouts. Nothing wrong with this — it is the government’s responsibility to prepare the nation for an imminent economic crisis — but promoting tourism at a time like this is certainly the wrong way.

The worst part is that all these steps are sending the wrong signals to the people that Indonesia has been spared, going by officials’ remarks, thanks to a divine intervention answering our prayers.

The government ignored critics and skeptics at home and abroad who said there was no way that Indonesia, with a population of 270 million and porous borders, could be completely free from the virus. They watched the news of the rapid spread of COVID-19 globally on television and social media.

Many, including health experts, raised questions about Indonesia’s seriousness in detecting the virus, and about the capacity of the government’s laboratories to test for the virus. Several hundreds of people were tested in those intervening two months and they were all declared negative.

The communication skills of many top government officials are severely wanting.

Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto has made several public gaffes, making light of the coronavirus threat. The man, who is supposed to lead the national campaign, has inevitably become the subject of ridicule on social media. This hurts the overall credibility of the government’s efforts.

Terawan is not trained in public speaking. He needs coaching in effective communication or should hire a professional public relations officer to do the talking for him. Until then, he’d better butt out.

He is not the only one. Most ministers, following the lead of their president, are doing the talking themselves to enjoy the media spotlight. Some are good but most are appalling speakers.

Centralizing the information to a single source, Achmad Yurianto, is not helping either. He should invite several experts to speak at his nightly media conferences. He just looks too stiff.

The central government should share information with provincial governments and let them do their part to explain to their own public. It was simply bizarre that the Bali administration was not aware it had the first COVID-19 death.

Local governments are essential in mobilizing public participation in fighting the virus. Rather than centralizing information, the government should coordinate the communication strategy.

President Jokowi should be seen to be in charge of this crisis. He did the right thing announcing the first two confirmed positive COVID-19 cases. He should appear once again now that WHO has declared a pandemic, and explain how the government is responding.

The government needs a strong and effective communication strategy. It needs professional help from communication and public relations experts on conveying messages related to COVID-19 without triggering massive panic but without misleading the public to take it easy either.

It’s not easy. Many countries are also experiencing problems as seen by the panic buying.

But crisis management of this scale is too big to be left to a bunch of amateurs.