The Jakarta Post
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has finally begun to take the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) seriously and called for people to stay at home on Sunday.
While this can be called progress, his call obviously won’t fix the months of government incompetence overnight. His latest speech on Monday also failed to show strong leadership amid the crisis.
Instead of focusing on clear guidelines regarding the social distancing he prescribed, he aired his dirty laundry regarding bad coordination between the central government and regional administrations, in particular with Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, his political rival. He also took time to endorse some startups on e-learning, something that falls within the jurisdiction of the companies’ marketing teams, not the nation’s leading public official.
It seems that economic growth and political rivalry have clouded Jokowi’s judgment and blocked him from making brave decisions: ordering early and thorough detection of the novel coronavirus through as many tests as possible, allowing for transparent public communication and the dissemination of clear information, taking leadership and working with regional leaders, scientists and the private sector (in the past month at least) and admitting that the government has been struggling to handle the crisis and has to take drastic measures like a partial lockdown of infected cities.
Each time, he has failed to make a good decision.
Only a few days ago, Jokowi supported the Health Ministry’s chronically opaque communication and the carefree attitude of its minister, a controversial military doctor, Terawan Agus Putranto. On Friday, the President said the opaque communication was necessary to avoid creating panic among people.
“Indeed, we did not deliver certain information to the public because we did not want to stir panic,” the President said on Friday.
Jokowi has also permitted Terawan, for far too long, to handle all swab tests at the ministry. He has disregarded the Eijkman Institute, which has offered its services, and only involved them on Thursday. Still, the government needs to allow more labs to test for the virus, and facilitate their capabilities to allow for more thorough detection.
Only on Saturday did Jokowi issue a presidential decree establishing a “fast response team” and appointing an institution other than the Health Ministry to take control. The decree appointed the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) to lead the team. The head and deputy heads of the team come from military and police backgrounds.
These decisions are better, but there are still many things the government must do to undo all the setbacks caused by their glaring incompetence.
While BNPB has a good track record in handling natural disasters, Jokowi apparently forgot something. In handling a pandemic, the country needs not only the military and the police, but also experts, something that is missing in the presidential decree.
It seems that so far, in handling the outbreak, the President does not have much trust in Indonesia’s vibrant civil society and democracy.
He doesn’t believe in the country’s own people or their need for clear, transparent scientific information to help them make the best decisions for themselves, their families and their employees.
He seems to prefer Terawan’s tales about supposed Indonesian immunity and the strength of prayer. Neither has proven to be particularly successful in the case of Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday.
One or two days after the government announced the first positive cases, Indonesians began to show a resilience honed by past public health and economic crises. We bounced back, we helped each other and we found our own credible information from other countries and from our own experience in dealing with many crises, including the bird flu pandemic.
Even without Jokowi’s leadership, communities, scholars, the media, civil society institutions and regular people have begun to do productive things for themselves and for others.
Even before Jokowi’s order to limit person-to-person interaction, private schools and universities took their own precautionary measures. Some people began searching for their own information about “social distancing”, others chose to quarantine themselves without much guidance from anyone.
There is no reason at all for the government to continue understating the urgency of the pandemic and belittle it for the sake of economic stability.
So why does the government insist on blurring the information, dismissing scientists and experts and ignoring calls to decentralize lab tests for the virus?
Is it perhaps that you are the one who is panicking, Pak Jokowi?