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Jakarta Post

Beat virus, not democracy

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, March 31, 2020   /   08:08 am
Beat virus, not democracy Vigilance: Soldiers from the Indonesian Military enforce a quarantine at Kebon Jeruk Jami Mosque, Tamansari, West Jakarta, on March 23. One hundred and eighty-three people, of which 78 are foreign citizens, have been isolated in the mosque after 3 people tested positive for COVID-19. (JP/Wendra Ajistyatama)

For the first time since announcing the first two confirmed COVID-19 cases early this month, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered Monday “large-scale social restriction” to contain the spread of the disease, which has infected more than 1,200 people and killed over 120.

But the devil is always in the detail. The President needs more than just the Health Quarantine Law, which governs the mechanisms of large-scale restriction. A last resort, he said, may be declaring a civil emergency, based on the State of Emergency Law, to ensure everybody adheres to the rule.

Indeed, the exponential increase of people infected constitutes a clear and present danger. Many, including the Kawal COVID-19 watchdog, have warned the number of fatalities could exceed 1 million unless a lockdown is immediately declared. The country is definitely facing not only massive human losses, but also economic calamity due to the pandemic.

The question is whether such a critical state justifies a civil emergency, which is a step closer to martial law. A civil emergency is far more overreaching than a quarantine or large-scale restriction because of its repercussions on civil liberties. Under such a state of emergency, the authorities can ban not only human movement and gatherings, which is necessary to break the chain of COVID-19 spread, but also curtail freedom of expression and speech.

Enforcing the State of Emergency Law to support implementation of social restriction measures looks like killing a mosquito with a cannon, given the excessive powers the government can exercise, which may include blockade of public access to information and defiance of transparency.

The government should instead focus on enforcing the Health Quarantine Law to fight COVID-19. Thus far the government has called for the closure of offices and schools, suspension of religious and public activities, which the 2018 law says are the least measures the government should take when large-scale social restriction is in place. Many have complied with the government’s appeal for physical/social distancing, but many people clearly defy the policy, though it is said to be the key to breaking the chain of COVID-19 transmission, as in the recent migration of thousands of people from the worst-hit areas like Jakarta to Central Java.

What has prevented the government from enforcing the large-scale social restriction, along with penalties for non-compliance, is the absence of implementing regulations. This is an acute problem that has for decades been plaguing our policymakers. They produce a law in a few months, if not weeks, but take years to issue implementing regulations, which renders the law unenforceable.

Jokowi should make sure his ministers immediately draft government regulations to implement the policy. The regulation is mandatory for the sake of legal certainty not only for the public but also the institutions mandated to enforce the restriction. The regulation is also needed to avoid misuse of state funds allocated to mitigate the impacts of the restriction.

The hard-won democracy should not be sacrificed in this war on COVID-19. Following the government’s earlier stumbling in this fight, saving lives must remain priority even if huge funds must be forked out or even borrowed.