President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is calling on all Indonesians to just stay home as the country of 270 million people braces for the worst pandemic in recent memory.
In his first national address on the COVID-19 outbreak on Sunday, the President highlighted the importance of practicing what is called “social distancing” to stop the spread of the coronavirus that has already claimed thousands of lives worldwide.
“Under the current conditions, it’s time for us to work from home, study from home and worship at home,” Jokowi said at a press conference at Bogor Palace in West Java on Sunday. “It’s time for us to work together, to help each other, to unite and cooperate. We want this to be a community movement, so that the COVID-19 problem can be addressed to the fullest.”
As of Sunday afternoon, Indonesia recorded 117 confirmed COVID-19 cases, five of which ended as fatalities. Scientists, however, believe that the number is much higher than the official tally, saying the government’s lethargic response to the health crisis could have cost it a window of opportunity to contain the virus’ spread.
The President said he would leave the decision of whether to declare states of emergency up to the individual regional heads. “As a large country and an archipelago, the spread of COVID-19 varies from region to region,” he said. “Therefore, I ask all governors, regents and mayors to continue to monitor their respective regions and consult with medical experts and the National Disaster Mitigation Agency [BNPB] to determine the emergency levels in their regions.”
He added that the government guaranteed it had enough stocks of staple goods to meet everyone’s needs. “We have also prepared economic incentives, as has been announced by the coordinating economic minister, so that the business world can carry on as usual,” he said.
Jokowi said that while Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi had tested positive for the virus, the rest of the Cabinet had already been tested for COVID-19 earlier on Sunday morning.
Jokowi said he would have himself tested for COVID-19 on Sunday afternoon.
“I ask all the people of Indonesia to stay calm, not to panic, to stay productive and to be more alert, so that we can slow down and stop the spread of COVID-19,” said the President who was receiving test hours after making the speech.
Jokowi’s speech came as public and international concerns grew over whether the Indonesian government had been doing enough to prevent a sustained community transmission of the highly contagious disease.
Regional heads in a number of areas — including Jakarta, Banten and West Java — have decided to temporarily close schools and public areas in an effort to contain the coronavirus. They have also called on the government to allow them to conduct polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to isolate infected people and prevent a wider contagion.
In a letter, World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged Jokowi to scale up the country’s emergency response mechanisms for containing the COVID-19 outbreak by, among other things, declaring a national state of emergency.
Tedros said the agency had "seen undetected or under-detected cases at the early stages of the outbreak [which] result in significant increases in cases and deaths in some countries” and asked Indonesia to intensify case finding, contact tracing, monitoring, quarantine of contacts and isolation of cases.
Members of the Indonesian Young Scientists Forum (YSF) have also sent a letter to the Office of the Presidential Staff asking the government to impose a lockdown on several areas.
“We recommend a lockdown for regions that have seen confirmed cases double within a day,” Fenny Dwivanily, a molecular biologist at the Bandung Institute of Technology and a member of the YSF, told The Jakarta Post on Saturday.
The scientists said the government might have missed the chance to contain the virus by failing to detect, test and isolate the first suspected patients in time. One indicator for that was that the government did not report any cases in January and February and only begun reporting cases in March. Within less than two weeks, the tally exponentially rose from zero to 96 cases.
“There was a delay in the containment effort so that would make it more difficult for the government to control the spread of the virus. We could see a situation that resembles the ones in Italy and Iran or even worse,” they said.
Syahrizal Syarief, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, said Jokowi should follow the WHO’s recommendation to declare a national emergency.
“The legal aspect of declaring [an emergency] is that the government will have the right to issue national reserves in the form of money and other resources. That means the finance minister could allocate funds from the state budget with no need to seek approval from the House of Representatives,” he said.
He also suggested that the government use the 1984 Communicable Disease Outbreak Law and the 2018 Health Quarantine Law to address the crisis. The laws stipulate that a lockdown should be imposed on areas where community transmissions have occurred.
The government revealed that confirmed cases had been found in West Java, Surakarta in Central Java, Yogyakarta, Bali, Manado in North Sulawesi and Pontianak, West Kalimantan. It has set up a fast-response team led by National Disaster Mitigation Agency head Doni Monardo.
“The WHO has declared it [the coronavirus] a pandemic, so now the status is a non-natural disaster,” Doni told the media on Saturday.