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Jakarta Post

Turf war undermines COVID-19 fight in Indonesia

  • Marchio Irfan Gorbiano and Ghina Ghaliya

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, April 1, 2020   /   08:40 am
Turf war undermines COVID-19 fight in Indonesia A resident stands guard at the entrance to the Bukit Pasir Putih residential complex in Depok, West Java, on Tuesday, March 31. Residents have closed access to the complex in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak. (JP/Riand Alfiandy)

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo declared on Tuesday a public health emergency in response to the escalating coronavirus outbreak in the country as tensions rose between the central government and regional heads over how to address the pandemic.

In a speech live-streamed from the Bogor Palace in West Java, the President reiterated his decision to rule out any form of lockdown at the regency or provincial levels, firmly telling regional heads that by declaring a health emergency status through a presidential decree (Keppres) he was able to issue a government regulation (PP) to impose large-scale social restrictions as stipulated under the 2018 Health Quarantine Law to slow the spread of the highly contagious disease.

“With the issuance of this government regulation all is clear now. The regional heads should not make policies of their own. All policies in the regions must be in accordance with the existing regulations,” the President said.

Read also: Jokowi declares COVID-19 health emergency, imposes large-scale social restrictions

Tensions have been brewing between the State Palace and local governments over different approaches to the outbreak, sparking confusion and also concerns among the public that the nation lacked a unified strategy to battle the COVID-19 outbreak.

The tensions were made evident by an ongoing tug-of-war between the President and his ally-turned-foe, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, over whether the lockdown option should be taken to prevent millions of people from leaving Greater Jakarta for the upcoming Idul Fitri holiday, a strategy that public health experts say is critically urgent to avert an explosion of COVID-19 cases across Java, an island of 141 million people.

The President stuck to his guns on Monday when he flatly rejected an official request sent by the Jakarta governor to impose a partial lockdown on the capital.

Anies reportedly sent a letter outlining his plans to the State Palace on Saturday, just two days before Jokowi announced his plan to impose a large-scale social-restriction order and a potential declaration of a “civil emergency”.

Jakarta has already prepared a lockdown scenario, asking toll-road operators, the city police and the transportation agency to simulate a closure of all roads into and out of the capital. The city was set to shut down the intercity bus services on Monday, but dropped the plan at the eleventh hour after failing to get clearance from the Greater Jakarta Transportation Agency, according to the city’s transportation agency.

Read also: Jokowi refuses to impose lockdown on Jakarta

Anies, a potential candidate for the 2024 presidential election, has made clear a partial lockdown in Jakarta would not bring food, health, energy, communication and financial services to a halt. “We have prepared all the scenarios. These days we are arranging everything, including the distribution of logistics to the people,” he said.

In a press conference following Jokowi’s speech on Monday, the governor said the city had already implemented a large-scale social-restriction order by suspending office operations, restricting transportation services and shutting down entertainment centers.

West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil has also prepared a lockdown scenario for the nation’s most-populated province, which has the second-highest number of cases after Jakarta. The governor, however, said the decision to implement it rested with the President.

Central Java Ganjar Pranowo had made a similar remark, but failed to stop the Tegal city administration from closing its borders for four months from March 30 to July 31. Its mayor, Dedy Yon Supriyono, said the city was in “a state of emergency” following the confirmation of one COVID-19 case: a 34-year-old man with a recent travel history to Abu Dhabi and Jakarta before he returned home by train.

Tegal is not alone in its defiance of the President’s instructions. Outside Java, the Papua administration has enforced a tougher approach by restricting entry into the province by sea or air for two weeks starting March 26. The Maluku provincial administration has also limited access at airports and ports and has urged its residents to stay at home and maintain physical distance from others.

Read also: Govt urges Indonesians abroad to stay put, promises aid during COVID-19 pandemic

The central government and the local government seem to have different perceptions regarding the gravity of the pandemic, said Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) researcher Noory Okthariza.

He argued that the central government seemed to be more concerned about the wider implications of its policies, while local governments were more focused on exercising their authority to prevent the virus from entering or spreading within their respective areas.

However, without clear guidelines from the central government, the regional administrations would choose to act on their own and that would mean the country did not have a unified strategy to contain the outbreak, he added.

“If the central government is too lethargic, then the regional administrations will choose to act on their own, as can be seen in Tegal, Papua and Surabaya. They have acted on their own without coordination with the central government, without any model that could be acted on as reference,” Noory said. “It could be chaotic”.

Local pollster KedaiKOPI executive director Kunto Adi Wibowo said the initiatives from the regional administrations that acted within their authority to contain the outbreak had resulted in an inefficient policy response to the pandemic.

“There are indications that [the regional administrations] are acting on their own without any coordination. This clearly affects the policy response [to contain COVID-19] as it has rendered it inefficient,” said Kunto.

Top doctors and public health experts, meanwhile, have pushed for an immediate quarantine on areas considered to be “red zones” for viral infection as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to surge across the country.

As of Tuesday, the government had recorded 1,528 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 136 deaths. If the country fails to step up its current COVID-19 control measures, it might have to deal with a “collapsed” healthcare system and hundreds of thousands of deaths, as stated in a projection by the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) and the University of Indonesia’s (UI) public health experts.

The modeling indicated that without mandatory physical distancing and mass testing, categorized in the document as a high degree of intervention, the country could see between 47,984 and 240,244 deaths, without taking into account medical and treatment intervention. Even with such drastic mandatory measures, the virus could infect some 500,000 people and kill 11,898 people, while the absence of intervention might lead to some 2.5 million positive cases by April.