DUNCAN GRAHAM But the dead are many

Apr 13, 2020

Indonesia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic makes a train wreck seem structured. The fourth most populous nation has next to no testing, no info, no direction – and most important of all – no trust. Such is the legacy of authoritarianism.

The population of Malang is nudging Adelaide’s 1.3 million. The South Australian capital has more than 60 ‘funeral homes’ – the East Java city just two. They’re quite unlike their Western equivalents – no faux solemnity, just functionality.

Yayasan Gotong Royong (Mutual Aid Foundation) caters for non-Muslims. Islamic funerals are DIY family and community affairs using local graveyards where body-trolleys are kept on site.

YGR’s centerpiece is an octagonal warehouse, each wedge designed to be opened so up to eight viewings can take place simultaneously. It has the tiled ambience of an old public lavatory.

The body of my wife’s friend arrived at YGR around 10 am. She was buried three hours later. It was assumed she’d died from an ill-defined sickness which had put her in hospital. We’ll never know because there was no autopsy.

This is the pattern across the archipelago of 6,000 inhabited islands. In normal times around 4,800 die daily. Now some may be victims of Covid-19. Few facts are gathered so health authorities don’t know whether new plagues are on the loose.

Smart Reuters’ journos fossicking through cemetery stats in Jakarta found a 40 per cent boost in burials. City Governor Anies Baswedan reacted: ‘It’s extremely disturbing; I’m struggling to find another reason than unreported Covid-19 deaths.’

In the same week Indonesia R & B singer Glenn Fredly died, apparently from meningitis. Fans swamped the open coffin jostling for space to take snaps, stopping the lid being lowered for several minutes.

Here social distancing is measured in millimeters though the latest rule in Jakarta is a limit of five per group and – at last – a partial shutdown in the capital. Masks are often removed because they raise sweat in the tropical heat.

Even if it was known my wife’s friend had died from coronavirus her widower would have kept mum; gangs have been stopping burials of Covid19 victims even though religious leaders appeal for tolerance saying plastic-wrapped corpses aren’t contagious.

The figures are 3,842 cases confirmed, 327 deaths and just 286 recoveries. Data from the Monarchy next door exposes the grim state of health care in the Republic. Although more than 4,500 Malaysians have the disease, just 73 have died. Impressively almost 2,000 have pulled through.

Testing in Indonesia is slow – more people are checked in a day in NZ than the past month in Indonesia.

With no concerted attempts to spread facts, myths have multiplied faster than the pathogens. Top rater is the WHO-China international conspiracy theory as endorsed by Fox News commentators. Demagogues are also doing well.

Fermenting among the indifference and cynicism is concern the virus will ramp prices. That’s already happening with garlic, onions and other vegetables deemed essential. This tangible threat could rouse more anger than the invisible sickness and lead to a breakdown in social order. The next step would be the military taking over from a weak civil administration.

Public health experts are the new prophets consulting data rather than planets and parchments, though frequently failing to explain their reasoning with clarity. This has left many preferring the simplistic claptrap of seers wearing skullcaps to the mumbo jumbo of guys in lab coats.

Commented Endy Bayuni, former editor of The Jakarta Post: ‘The government needs professional help … on conveying messages related to Covid-19 without triggering massive panic but without misleading the public to take it easy either. Crisis management of this scale is too big to be left to a bunch of amateurs.’

Epidemiologists’ statististque du jour is 140,000 deaths if no meaningful intervention. This is a ghastly scenario – more than the current world-wide toll. However it’s far less than the estimated half-million Indonesians who died in the 1965-66 purge of leftists by Army-backed militias, turning the Republic away from communism and into a crooks’ playground.

Most early plague doomsayers have been foreigners so easily dismissed by bigots like Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto. He’s a Christian and retired lieutenant general Army doctor who originally prescribed prayer as a Covid-19 prophylactic.

When Harvard public health analysts claimed Indonesia had undetected cases and should get its skates on, Putranto said the report was ‘insulting’ and the nation well prepared. Unsurprisingly most trusted US university research.

Now local scientists are getting alarmed. Dr Pandu Riono of the University of Indonesia’s Department of Biostatistics and Population used an Australian webinar last week to publicly plead for President Joko Widodo to understand the seriousness of the situation and ‘respond as the head of the nation.’

Politicians can get stuck into their colleagues but a public institution employee bumping the president is risky in an unsteady democracy where lese majeste laws are edging closer.

Even the ABC has been slack. For six nights running this month its one-hour flagship 46-countries TV news program The World ignored the Southeast Asia giant’s plight while focusing on lands elsewhere.

Before the pandemic Widodo paraded a team of Gen Z luminaries he’d consult to reach the nation’s youth. As predicted in an earlier column they’ve been elbowed away from the cameras by the gerontocracy.

Eventually Widodo admitted treating his people like mushrooms by following the father-knows-best strategy of second president Soeharto during his 32-year militaristic regime.

As few believed anything the government said they whispered scuttlebutt. Newsmags faxed from abroad were furtively copied and passed around.

Now platforms aren’t just for trains but cyberspaces where everyone has their own PA system to shout out facts and falsehoods. The view that secrets can still be contained and cock-and-bulls not fill the void showed stark naivety.

Widodo confessed to the media: ‘We didn’t deliver certain (Covid-19) information to the public because we did not want to stir panic.

“We will inform the public eventually. However, we have to think of the possibility that the public will react by panicking or worrying, as well as the effect on the recovered patients. Every country has different policies.’

Indeed – and Indonesia’s responses are among the worst.

(Duncan Graham (www.indonesianow.blogspot.com) is an Australian journalist remaining in Indonesia.)


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