The Jakarta Post
Many would argue that – regardless of his moral and political choices – President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is a man of action. But few, even among his voters, would say the former furniture businessman was a man of science. Since taking over national leadership in 2014, Jokowi has put science on the back burner. Throughout his presidency, he has focused instead on turning Indonesia into a robust economic engine, allocating a significant portion national resources towards strategic programs designed to boost the economy.
The President cares about science, too, but only applied science, which tends to have a much larger impact on the economy. Schools and universities have been redesigned to function as human factories to produce “skilled workers”. Pure science? That’s a whole different story.
In recent years, some scientists have complained about what they perceive as a sort of hostility on the part of the government toward scientists. A number of foreign scientists have either been barred from entering the country or expelled for many reasons, ranging from biopiracy allegations to simply saying the wrong things.
Sadly, the situation has not changed at all, even as the worst global pandemic in recent memory claws its way into the country, with at least 200 dead on Indonesian soil. Still, Jokowi seems to have little regard for scientists, the people who know far more about pandemics than any of his economic or political advisers at the State Palace.
Read also: Indonesia's latest official COVID-19 figures
The Jokowi administration has practically ignored warnings from scientists from the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, dismissing reports that Indonesia might have failed to detect cases as “insulting”. The special task force he created to fight the highly contagious disease is dominated by military figures, while economic considerations have always been the determining factor in decisions about how to fight the outbreak.
Calls made by a number of prominent physicians and epidemiologists for a partial lockdown and aggressive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to prevent the virus from spreading throughout the country have been largely ignored.
Mathematical models showing a grim coronavirus forecast over the next few weeks have been met with the quasi-propaganda of cherry-picked scientific studies, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, about how the virus is less virulent in tropical countries, ignoring the caveats made by other scientists that the studies are far from conclusive and should not be factored in a strategy to defeat the virus.
Jokowi is now facing the worst health crisis in decades, and we understand that he has to make an extremely difficult choice: saving the people, saving the economy or doing the virtually impossible: saving both. But the President is making a mistake in sidelining scientists.
Social and economic considerations should indeed be weighed in the government’s decision-making process. But the primary guideline in this battle should be scientific modeling and a set of policy recommendations designed by doctors, epidemiologists and mathematicians. To beat the virus and to save lives, the President must listen to scientists.