Back to the good ol’ ways in Jakarta

Jun 11, 2020

Cities can snap-back from the Corona-19 crisis – though not necessarily to a New Normal. Jakarta shows how.

The Old Normal of over-filled markets and traffic-choked streets is back in the Indonesian capital and other centres across the archipelago. Before-and-after urban plague pix show few differences.

The most striking are garish banners featuring comic figures warning citizens to wash hands, stay apart and wear masks. In the foreground, eyes downcast, shuffle the unimpressed and unprotected.

The billboards have been more facade than substance. Few Indonesians are seeing the pandemic primarily as a medical issue – and that includes the government.

Trapped between the hidden coral threatening a public health wreck and the exposed rocks of an economic disaster, the government is navigating a high-risk passage.

It’s decided to sail over the hazards it can’t see, gambling the crew will stay fit and the ship of state won’t founder, ripped apart by job losses and social riots.

Many think Captain Joko Widodo is using the wrong compass, and that includes Lapor (report) a new NGO calling itself the Citizens’ Coalition for Covid-19.

It says it’s crowdsourced by ‘a group of individuals who have concerns about citizens’ rights and public health issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic’. Eleven NGOs including Transparency International and the Alliance of Independent Journalists are listed as supporting the initiative.

Offering itself as a muster point for information ‘that has so far escaped the government’s reach’ its pronouncements have to date been sober and backed by legitimate sources.

To avoid being seen as subversives (the label used to turn docile dissidents into red-fanged Communists) the Lapor operatives are claiming the status of supporters.

They say their data will help the government ‘determine policies and steps for handling Covid-19 in the field’. This implies the national administration, with its 4.5 million employees, isn’t using its resources efficiently.

At the moment Lapor seems to be what it claims, though in Indonesia it’s always worth pondering other motives and undisclosed backers. Its definition of ‘help’ won’t cheer Widodo. It means using info from the regions which allegedly show the real death toll is about 3.5 times greater than official stats. At the time of keyboarding these were 32,033 confirmed cases and 1,883 deaths.

Lapor started in March when the Palace was misleading people about the oncoming pandemic. Giveaways included the president urging the sick to drink jamu (traditional herbal potions), keep calm and carry on. He also backed Donald Trump’s cure-all chloroquine offering no evidence other than the POTUS endorsement.

When the plague became too gross to ignore Widodo said he’d sung a lullaby to avoid scaring the littlies, forgetting they were monitoring world news on their smartphones.

Among the early cynics were journalists, doctors and academics, predictably labelled scaremongers and urged to pray by Health Minister Dr Terawan Agus Putranto. A cluster of NGOs has demanded his sacking for ‘an absence of sensitive, responsive and effective leadership’. Widodo has stuck by the lieutenant-general from an army hospital, though the calls for change persist.

Amid the many problems facing the world’s third-largest democracy (though only just leaving adolescence) is that the people don’t trust government information.

With good cause. The 32-year dictatorship of General Soeharto which only ended in 1998 was characterised by grand-scale corruption and the crushing of opposition.

Newspapers were thin and bland. The government channel TVRI news could only telecast uniformed ministers announcing grand policies which seldom eventuated. Think Kim Jong-un studying maps in a horseshoe of quivering generals.

No use reporters raging against the machine for they’d get crushed. So hacks relied on overseas broadcasts (shortwave Radio Australia was particularly popular) and photocopies of smuggled foreign papers to spread the news.

Indonesians are pragmatic. Editors used double entendre and spliced real news into government handouts knowing most ministers were too dense to decode the wordplay.

The legacy of those decades of distrust doesn’t just linger – it pervades, making an outfit like Lapor all the more necessary. It recruited Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University to measure the level of readiness of Jakartans for a return to normality. Unsurprisingly it found many confused and fearful and not just for their health.

Although the government offers handouts to the poor, the welfare safety net is considered too patchy to provide confidence. The latest cash splash of Rp 677.2 trillion (AUD 69 billion) follows two others totalling more than Rp 1,000 trillion (AUD 103 billion) to stimulate the economy, give tax breaks and quake-proof state-owned enterprises.

Last week Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati argued the sandbags would keep growth above zero, but Japan-trained economist Dr Piter Abdullah disagreed. The research director at Indonesia’s Centre of Reform on Economics was quoted as saying:

‘The country needs a bigger health care budget to manage the outbreak. If we’re not ready, then there’s a possibility of a second wave … the proposed budget for social protection is too small amid the threat of rising poverty.’

Lifting the ‘partial lockdown’ this week gave the official green light for a return to work or job-seeking. It was an academic gesture. Jumping the red to get ahead of the crush is common at traffic lights when cops doze, so ignoring orders to stay home came naturally.

All this is history as the busses and trains are now moving masses of commuters and shoppers around Jakarta’s 6,400 square kilometres, the world’s second-most populous metro area after Tokyo’s 37 million.

Japan seems to be on top of the plague. Although more than 900 have perished the per capita death rate is 40 times less than the US. This has been attributed to a disciplined public, trustworthy stats and the government’s rapid response, factors absent in Indonesia’s Old Normal handling of the crisis.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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