The Jakarta Post
Hundreds of people gathered on Sunday at McDonald’s in Central Jakarta to bid farewell to the American fast food chain’s flagship outlet in Indonesia. The event prompted an instant flood of comments on social media expressing disdain and anger toward the crowd and its seeming disregard for either contracting or spreading COVID-19.
While the photographs of the ill-advised public gathering put a knot in my stomach, I was not surprised. How can the public be expected to make good decisions when the information they’ve been given is questionable at best?
The outbreak’s economic toll on Indonesia is well documented, but the loss of Indonesian lives to the virus is less clear: The official count on Tuesday put the death toll at just over 1,000, but Jakarta has recorded nearly 2,000 burials using COVID-19 protocols since the beginning of March.
Other provinces have recorded hundreds of deaths among persons under monitoring (ODP) and patients under surveillance (PDP). While these classifications are highly distinct, the statistics are not, with ODP and PDP deaths not reflected in the COVID-19 figures announced at the national task force’s daily briefings.
What is even less obvious is the multidimensional costs of the denial, disinformation and obfuscation the government has engaged in since before the outbreak emerged in the country.
High-ranking officials have made irresponsible and cavalier comments that downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus from the outset, showing more concern about the potential economic effects than the looming health crisis.
Now, as several countries are easing their lockdowns and looking to restart their economies, Indonesia is somehow contemplating doing the same, even though it never imposed a complete nationwide lockdown in the first place (and boasted about it).
It has also conducted fewer than 1,000 tests per 1 million people, while its data has been persistently riddled with inconsistencies and disparities between regional and central figures.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has insisted that the country must flatten its COVID-19 curve this month “by any means necessary”, while adding that we must “live in peace” with the virus.
But the government’s constant about-turns, evasion and equivocation to justify its desire to reopen the economy have only served to foment confusion and frustration, even among its most ardent supporters. Worse, its flip-flopping is misleading for those who are not following the situation day to day with a fine-toothed comb.
Throughout the government hierarchy, the country’s officials seem to be living in two alternate realities at the same time: one in which the COVID-19 outbreak rages on to threaten the lives of all 260 million Indonesians, and one in which we have miraculously “flattened the curve” and are ready to embark on a mythical path to the “new normal”.
On some days or at certain hours, or as a drop amid its countless public statements and speeches, the government espouses caution and prudence in its approach to the outbreak. And yet, these same officials and their colleagues make statements that exhibit little to no awareness about the real and actual situation in the country, sometimes in their very next breath.
“Don’t mudik, don’t pulang kampung,” Cabinet ministers and senior officials sing in a music video that defies description, released only days after newly recovered Transportation Minister Budi Karya reopened public transportation for those who meet “certain criteria”.
“We are not safe until there is a COVID-19 vaccine” was the sage statement from national COVID-19 task force head Doni Monardo last week while claiming that the daily tally of new cases was declining. The very next day, the Health Ministry announced the country’s highest single-day increase in new cases to date.
“Relaxing the PSBB should be done carefully and not hastily,” Jokowi said Tuesday, just days after the coordinating security minister’s suggestion to the contrary.
Then, in a self-congratulatory press briefing on Friday, the coordinating human development minister said that the country was “on the right track” in its battle against COVID-19. “There is a declining trend in cases, although not dramatic,” said Muhadjir Effendy. “I thank all people who have complied with the government’s COVID-19 precautionary measures,”
The next day, government’s COVID-19 spokesman Achmad Yurianto announced 533 new cases, another record high in less than a week.
So on Sunday, hundreds of Jakartans flouted the social restrictions to mark the last day of a fast-food outlet.
“What is the cost of lies?” asks protagonist Valery Legasov rhetorically at the beginning of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. “It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth,” he says. “The real danger is that, if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then?”
If people under 45 --my age group-- must resume work to prevent total economic collapse, I would prefer the government to just come out and say so rather than using absurd justifications like, “they only make up 15 percent of deaths”. What percentage of the COVID-19 death toll must an entire age group comprise, then, to be permitted to shelter in place?
If we have reached the limits of our testing capacity, just say so instead of grasping at straws and intoning that “testing capacity between countries is not comparable”.
If there is no choice but to risk our lives to keep our jobs, the government needs to take the bull by the horns, looks us in the eye and come clean. Don’t patronize us with platitudes as though we were gullible children.
Otherwise, it leaves us with little but doubt and uncertainty and no other option but to refer to the absentee Health Minister’s first prescription for the epidemic: Pray hard.