The Jakarta Post
Economic considerations are always important for governments when taking any action, including in the current fight to contain the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. But governments should not let economics become the prime driver, especially if it means risking people’s health and lives, which are far more important than their livelihoods.
Time and again the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo allowed economics to become the main stumbling block to it moving more decisively in responding to the growing threat from the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
You’d think that the government has learned from its fatal mistake when it initially responded to the COVID-19 threat by encouraging tourism, for Indonesians and foreigners, when most other countries were cutting back or discouraging any travel, whether domestic or international.
The government’s second economic package announced by Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati on March 13 was far more sensible, allocating large sums of money specifically to contain the spread of the virus.
Public health should come first and foremost; economics can come later.
But economic considerations have once again taken hold as Indonesia grapples with the idea of whether to follow many other countries by imposing a lockdown.
Sadly, Jokowi on Monday put an end to the debate, making it clear he was not even contemplating the idea, and just to be sure that everyone got the message, he stressed that by law, the president, and not regional governments, has the power to impose a lockdown.
Indonesia actually has a legislation regulating lockdowns: the Health Quarantines Law that Jokowi signed into effect in 2018. If he resorts to a lockdown, he would come across as a farsighted and visionary leader to have come up with the legislation two years before the pandemic.
But now that he is not even entertaining the use of the legislation, credit should be given to then health minister Nila Moeloek for having convinced him to sign it. Maybe, if he had retained her in his second term in office, Indonesia’s response to COVID-19 would have been very different.
The chief argument against lockdowns is that it could grind the economy, which is already slowing down, to a complete halt, with severe political and social consequences.
The specter of the 1998 economic recession, followed by mass riots, political crisis and the collapse of the Soeharto regime, is being played out again. This is probably why Jokowi entrusts the handling of the coronavirus mostly to military types and less to public health professionals.
He sees the coronavirus through economic and security prisms.
The actions the President advocates are likely to have minimal effect on curtailing the spread of the virus, if we go by the experiences of China, Italy, Iran and many European countries where COVID-19 has been most severe.
Rather than outright instructions, for which the country’s CEOs have the power, he limited himself to appealing to people to consider working, studying and praying at home. He also appealed to people to avoid mass gatherings.
Unfortunately, as soon as Jakarta announced on the weekend that schools were to be closed, many families headed to the Puncak hill resort area and many others headed to their hometowns, apparently considering the situation an opportunity for a vacation. Many domestic flights remained full these past weeks. Clearly the government’s coronavirus message has not fully sunk in for people to feel any sense of real crisis.
Mere appeals will not cut it. People will still travel rather than stay home and if they have it will spread the virus multiple times to others along the way.
Most schools have heeded the appeal but many employers are divided, with many companies staying open if only to ensure steady income for their workers even if business is slow.
Critics of lockdowns rightly point out that 55 percent of workers in Indonesia have no steady income as they are in the informal sector and a lockdown would mean the loss of their livelihoods. They would be severely hit by a lockdown.
The economy is already going down, with or without lockdowns, but failing to curtail people’s movement would mean more people getting infected and even dying.
Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, Jokowi’s political ally, got it right when he said, as quoted in Tempo daily: “We need to save people’s lives to keep the economy running. If economics remain our focus, everything will die.”
Yes, there will be severe economic hardships and the question is: How do we handle this?
Sri Mulyani expressed confidence that Indonesia can draw lessons from the 1998 economic recession to weather this coming crisis. Lest Jokowi forget, Indonesia has also learned valuable lessons in running social safety net programs for us to be able to deal with the next economic and social hardships.
Indonesia has the necessary administrative infrastructure, with neighborhood and community associations everywhere ready to run the social safety net programs. Jokowi of all people should have confidence in the gotong-royong (mutual assistance) spirit of our people.
But isn’t a lockdown going to be expensive? Yes, but that’s your economic argument again.
Indonesia may soon find that the costs of failing to take swift action to stop the COVID-9 spread now could be even more prohibitive.
Going by other countries’ experiences, there are alternatives to lockdowns in stopping the spread of the coronavirus, but the only viable option for Indonesia at this stage is a lockdown. It’s not too late.
We just need a change of paradigm. It should no longer be “It’s the economy, stupid,” so often heard in election slogans. This time, it should be “It’s people’s lives and health, stupid.”
Senior editor at The Jakarta Post