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Urban Chat: Herd mentality, FOMO and a government caught unready for either

Lynda Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, March 6, 2020  /  03:07 pm
Urban Chat: Herd mentality, FOMO and a government caught unready for either

A person uses hand sanitizer in this stock image. The World Health Organization recommends practicing good hand hygiene as the best way of preventing infection. (AFP/Lionel BONAVENTURE)

In my last column, I illustrated how it was to travel in the time of coronavirus, cheekily borrowing from the great Gabo (aka Gabriel García Márquez). Even if we were visiting Laos, which hasn’t reported any cases, tourism workers served visitors from behind face masks while travelers jumped anytime a fellow traveler coughed. We went about armed with alcohol swabs and high-dose vitamin C tablets.

Singapore went "orange alert" while we were on our trip, and my travel companion from the island nation watched the news showing usually calm Singaporeans raided supermarket shelves and deserted public spaces.

The same week, the people of Hong Kong flooded stores for basic survival items including toilet paper rolls, having endured months of political protests.

Similar scenes unfolded across Indonesia on Monday after President Joko Widodo confirmed the country’s first two cases. WhatsApp imploded with the news, gossip on the two patients, and pics and vids of the buying frenzy, showing usually sedentarily paced Indonesians running to the nearest grocer's.

Those gripped by FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) forwarded every little nugget of information they came across to show that they were, indeed, up to date, regardless of whether said nugget was valid, substantiated or even relevant.

Herd mentality drove people to blindly follow others in clearing out supermarkets, notwithstanding the absence of any indication that Indonesia would go into lockdown, Wuhan-style.

Do I blame people for being afraid of contracting COVID-19? No.

The past two months have shown that SARS-CoV-2 (the new strain of coronavirus that causes the disease) spreads quickly, affecting more than 80 countries and causing 3,000 deaths; albeit, more than 90 percent of all cases and deaths are in China, where the pesky bug emerged at the end of last year

The director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has stated it’d take 12-18 months before we could see a vaccine. It's no wonder that the US and Australia, even with their generally higher education levels, still saw panic buying.

For Indonesians, it’s even scarier because our government doesn’t have a good track record of being dependable when it comes to science or being open about matters that “might hurt” the country’s image.

Earlier warnings from foreign authorities on cases that had visited Indonesia were quickly shot down. After recommending prayer, the Vice President wanted Saudi Arabia to repeal its decision to turn away umrah pilgrims, because Indonesia didn't have a confirmed case, entirely blind to the probability of Indonesian pilgrims getting the disease there and then bringing it back home. Meanwhile, our Health Minister has been incapable of providing succinct answers or adopting a serious demeanor during press briefings.

The only major government plan that has been announced is a generously funded campaign to lure more tourists to Indonesia, whereas other countries are canceling major events and mass gatherings.

Even after Monday's announcement, professionalism hasn’t improved a whit among our officials. The Depok mayor's thoughtless revelation of the patients’ identities prompted a massive media onslaught that forced the hand of the harassed patients to send out a WhatsApp message that went instantly viral. In it, they said they had taken the initiative to get checked out as soon as they heard that a foreigner they’d been in a room with had tested positive – instead of being tracked down by a vigilant government as the official announcement had suggested.

And of course, it took until Wednesday for the government to announce that it was readying a protocol.

Let's put that into perspective: While it may be two days on the ground in Indonesia, that's a full two months after the virus made international news, infected more than 98,100 people and claimed almost 3,400 lives in nearly 90 countries, including those that border ours. Or was it the case that a protocol been prepared but after a real case, the authorities realized it wasn’t adequate?

On top of that, it breezily mentioned a plan for a hospital dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients. Yet instead of planning to build it in an outbreak epicenter as China did, ours will be on Galang Island near Batam; never mind the complex logistics of transporting patients carrying an infectious disease across thousands of kilometers and three two zones at most. Meanwhile, news broke that one person managed to escape quarantine in Batam.

I didn’t take part in the buying frenzy and I do condemn it for jacking up prices even further beyond the means of the less fortunate – and hence, the most vulnerable. Yet, our tight-knit Indonesian society that has long rewarded herd mentality and is now running around in social media-driven FOMO isn’t exactly finding a dependable voice in the government.

Rumor and superstition reign in the absence of trust and reason. Just look at the latest rush to traditional markets for certain herbs that promise a cure – again, according to automatically viral messages.

If the government fails to immediately demonstrate evidence-based leadership to earn public trust, Indonesians will fall victim to the coronavirus infodemic long before an epidemic even occurs.

At this rate, it’s actually surprising that some proportion of our 260 million-strong population hasn’t descended into panic mode a la The Walking Dead. If the government thinks it can drag its collective feet until we reach that stage, allow me to point out that things usually don’t end well for the untrustworthy leaders on the show: either you get thrown out by the living or devoured alive by the dead. Or both.

So please, don’t fail us during this global outbreak. We are depending on each and every one of you, the freely elected members of the Indonesian government.(ste)


– Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer with a penchant for purple,
pussycats and pop culture.


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