After one year since the emergence of the coronavirus in December 2019, Indonesia is still nowhere near controlling it. We have also learned that not everyone has a sufficient foundation of knowledge to cope with a large-scale pandemic in Indonesia. Not only can civilians unknowingly follow incorrect information and conspiracy theories, but also government officials are, to some degree, lacking proper scientific understanding as seen from their confusing policy-making during the pandemic.
The government has made a series of imprudent decisions in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning, when the public demanded more diagnostic kits to curb the spread of the disease, the government went for the rapid test option despite resistance from medical professional organizations and a WHO statement saying that rapid tests should only be used for epidemiological studies. Despite all the scientific grounding, rapid tests are still widely used in Indonesia.
One of the most controversial episodes was when the Agriculture Ministry introduced its so-called Anti-Corona Necklace, made from eucalyptus extract. The ministry officials claimed it could kill the coronavirus in minutes. It was an entirely unfounded claim without any reliable scientific basis. The product, which was initially planned for mass production, did not even go through clinical trials, nor had it been published in a peer-reviewed journal and thus was met with resistance from the public and scientists.
More recently was the government's initiative to start mass COVID-19 vaccination in November 2020 despite none of the vaccines having passed phase 3 clinical trials and a lack of sufficient publications on safety and efficacy, which means the vaccine has no safety guarantee. Fortunately, the government canceled this plan after heeding the advice of several medical professional organizations not to start mass vaccination until sufficient scientific data on safety and efficacy had been gathered.
This has made it obvious that we are not only fighting the coronavirus pandemic, but also severe misinformation and illiteracy. This has also resulted in many people losing their trust in health workers, accusing them of intentionally seeking financial gain from the pandemic or deliberately increasing the number of COVID-19 patients to multiply revenue.
This finding is not intriguing since research on the World`s Most Literate Nation by Central Connecticut State University in 2016 put Indonesia 60th out of 61 surveyed nations. Moreover, numerous studies agree that conspiracy theories usually arise as a result of a lack cognitive tools to process logical reasoning. Therefore, scientific illiteracy or misinformation is indeed a severe COVID-19 comorbidity we have to deal with seriously during this pandemic.
Based on a recent survey by Statistics Indonesia (BPS), 17 percent of Indonesians, or around 45 million people, do not believe that COVID-19 exists despite all the scientific evidence. Similarly, in a survey by the University of Indonesia on September, 21 percent of respondents said they believed COVID-19 was a conspiracy of global elites. I believe that almost all medical workers in the field have met at least one person who does not believe in COVID-19.
One reason we are often misguided with misinformation and hoaxes is that we have not put sufficient spotlight on the scientists, who are far better informed about this pandemic. On the other side, it may also be because the scientists and medical professionals have not reached wider society properly.
This pandemic is a real test and a confirmation of poor Indonesian scientific literacy and thus should be seen as an opportunity to reshape it. However, this endeavor should involve all aspects and take a reciprocal approach to put it to work. Firstly, it should start from the government, particularly during a pandemic when the government is the decision and policy maker. The pandemic is an unpredictable situation with much information yet to discover and thus requires a measured approach based on current scientific evidence.
Most countries that have been successful in handling the pandemic are those that trust in science, such as New Zealand, whose COVID-19 handling was among the best in the world. They put health before economy and took stringent measures early. They went 24 days without a single COVID-19 case. In contrast, Indonesia aimed to save both public health and the economy, but ended up jeopardizing both.
This is also an alarm for Indonesian scientists and medical professionals to reach the public instead of remaining isolated in the scientific community alone, where the public cannot reach their work or voice. Indonesian scientists and their works should be approachable and easily accessed by the people so they can be exposed to more reliable information and not get confused by a myriad of irresponsible news or hoaxes on the internet. People easily fall for conspiracy theories because the spread of false information outmatches correct information, and because they are easier to process.
Most people will not read complex technical scientific journals on the latest pandemic developments, and thus it is much easier for them to accept simple yet wrong information. Therefore, scientists and experienced professionals need to speak through social or popular media so that they can be heard by wider society.
The mainstream media should also put more spotlight on scientists and health professionals to bring information closer to public. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Indonesians have mostly been exposed to the voices of government officials and politicians. If people are exposed to more reliable yet easily-understandable information, they can make a comparison about which information is worth reading and sharing.
The pandemic is unlikely to end anytime soon, even if an effective vaccine is developed. Therefore, good scientific literacy of both government and civilians is important to get through this pandemic. This is why it is important to reshape our literacy.
Medical Doctor at INCO Sorowako Hospital Indonesia
LPDP Scholarship Awardee for master study at University College London