Like everyone else these days, I spend every day and almost every evening reading the latest news on the ongoing pandemic (albeit, it probably doesn't help that it's part of my job). It's hard enough trying to find positive coverage on a normal newsday; now it's nearly impossible to find articles on something other than "the coronavirus". The one or two heartwarming articles that do appear in the thumbnail grid are no more than a temporary panacea. And for some reason, that the environment is emerging as the clear winner from all the travel bans is small consolation.
Bad news travels fast and far: the daily surge in figures, the day-to-day hardships of people living in lockdown or families with loved ones in self-isolation or worse, in hospital, and of course, the economy. One wonders not just how humanity will emerge from this battle – and make no mistake, we will – but also how entire industries and small businesses might survive and, of course, the millions upon millions who rely on them for jobs to put food on the table.
Most of us have some way of pulling our heads out of such grim thoughts, but if it involves heading out, forget it. Around the world, the things that normally give us joy are being axed left and right, like an illegal logger felling the trees of Borneo: the concerts; the museums, zoos and amusement parks, entire league championships, cafes, bars and restaurants and weddings. Even going in to the office is a no-no – not that working is necessarily enjoyable for all, but many people like going to the office just to see their colleagues and work friends.
That's the crux of the matter: What's being cancelled is social interaction – the very gregarious nature that has defined and developed human society for several millennia – and for good reason.
In other related news, it's about lack. In Indonesia, we're not talking about testing kits, masks and hand sanitizer, food or toilet paper as in other parts of the world. And while not intending to play down its significance during this crisis, never mind the infodemic and the unconscionable folk behind it. The daily gripe here swirls mostly around the "infodearth": not just a lack of transparency in the data that's shared, but the absence of information.
While I wouldn't go so far as to call for the addresses of those in self-isolation ("Saat Masyarakat Menunggu KeterbukaanItu", Kompas, March 17), I do agree there is a paucity of public advice on both what to do and what not to do – despite the availability of the dedicated World Health Organization webpage, handily entitled "Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public".
The government says it's trying to prevent mass hysteria, but when experts around the globe are still in the early stages of research and being careful about talking about what they do and don't know, the public have been left on their own, grasping at straws for any sort of guidance. This includes the media, which have been left to their own devices to compile their own to-do guides with whatever (verifiable) information they have at hand.
And these days it's not an "agony aunt" column or the know-it-all auntie people turn to: It's social media, where the chaff is mixed with the grain and there's not a handy sieve in sight. (Not that, you know, the ordinary person today knows how to use a sieve for this anyway.)
Even so, a mix-up in the government's communications can be pinpointed to a glaring faux pas, to put it kindly, and one made by the very individual it nonetheless decided to appoint as its spokesperson for "all things COVID-19". That was back in late February and it elicited caws of laughter in newsrooms. Nearly a month later and no one is laughing now.
The thing is, though, people aren't asking for a solution to this unprecedented and unforeseen event. (Yes, yes, there's all that hype about "the coronavirus was predicted", but hey – it's not foresight when it's called that after the fact.) What people want is guidance.
The indistinctness of the information that is shared and the indirectness of the replies that are given – amid the lingering odor of post-colonial ego that seems to waft from every decision or non-decision made by neglecting the well-meaning and well-informed recommendations from scientists, scholars and WHO – are part of what's blurring the underlying message: Be a community.
Let's take a look at that obscured message more closely in the Indonesian context.
This is the country that, even before it was a country and just a bunch of disconnected tribes, clans and ethnic groups that didn't speak the same language somehow banded together across several thousand islands, got organized, corralled their tools, know-how and local wisdom to drive out an advanced, industrial power that had laid claim to this land and its people for more than three centuries.
This is the country that, when its people outgrew its self-proclaimed patriarch, cried out in one voice, "Enough!" to oust the regime that had kept them in line for more than three decades by preventing them from fulfilling their potential and ushered in sweeping changes that are still evolving today.
This is the nation of people who have redefined themselves and their aspirations time and again, from "pribumi" to "perjuangan" to "orang kecil" to "reformasi" and to "innovasi". It is a people who are bound by the roots of the "gotong royong" philosophy across hundreds of languages and dialects.
It is a culture to which science may be an import, but innovation through creative repurposing is homegrown (just watch what your local bengkel mechanic can build with broken bits and bobs, a wrench and a makeshift welder); it is a country that is approaching a demographic bonus with the so-called millennials taking the lead in applying technology and connectivity to give new life and reach to gotong royong.
It is now the third month since an unnamed, undiscovered virus jumped from an animal to human beings and only the third week since the government announced the first confirmed cases in Indonesia.
It would be odd not to feel scared. Change and the unknown are scary, but this is where we are at our best. And while we're at it, let's admit that we've all become a bit complacent over the past couple of decades amid all the trappings of globalization, individualism and late capitalism, served up conveniently via the next trending gadgetry.
Let's not forget that, for all the statistics touted in the media about the growth in internet usage and accessibility, what is often left unmentioned is that 93 million people in the country remain unconnected. That's millions of our fellow Indonesians who are no longer receiving public information or advisories from a government that has switched over to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other internet-based services in lieu of the humble yet effective universal medium, the SMS.
While the tools and know-how may change over time, local wisdom remains steadfast, whatever storm may arrive on these shores. Words change, too, so let's consider this newly coined term as a direct response to the pandemic: caremongering. It is the very essence of Indonesians and Indonesia.
So rather than wait for guidance from the top that isn't forthcoming anyway, we need to fall back on ourselves as we've always done in such times of fear and uncertainty. It is again the moment to rise as a village against a single, recognized threat by asking not what we can do for ourselves, but what we can do together, for each other. We have the tools, the know-how and today, the freedom. All we need to link these is us and a little gotong royong for the glue.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.