DUNCAN GRAHAM But the dead are many

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.)



Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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6 Responses to DUNCAN GRAHAM But the dead are many

  1. Avatar Dave Hodgkin says:

    As an overall this is an interesting and informative article, though sadly it still assumes that Indonesia’s public health decisions are being made based on ignorance or incompetence, or are heartless and selfish.

    As a relatively young, culturally diverse and geographically dispersed nation, Indonesia’s greatest concern has always been ensuring national unity and stability. Post Soeharto it’s second concern is ensuring ongoing economic development so that it can catch up with more developed nations. This remains the case in the current Covid-19 context. While the potential of collapse in national unity and and stability is almost unimaginable for Australia, the last elections provided a stark reminder for Jokowi that it remains a hair breadth away in Indonesia. The current President was elected on a populist vote even though he lacked political strength and power within the upper echelons of Indonesia’s olygothic post dictatorship society. Although he one the last election he was forced to compromise and place Probowo, the leader of the opposition in charge of the military. He is very aware of the political fragility of the nation.

    During both this and his last term in office, Jokowi has been very aware that there are issues he could tackle and issues he could not. While some may feel that he has been weaker than he needed to be on human rights, corruption, the environment, growing religious intolerance and other important issues, none of us sit in his shoes nor know the depths of political intrigue that he faces. From day one Jokowi has made it clear that economic development through improved physical (and now Social) infrastructure would be the focus and legacy of his presidency. Covid-19 is just one more challenge to this already challenging agenda, but not one that appears to be changing this priority.

    Indonesia’s stunningly low rates of testing for Covid-19 means that there is no evidence of a rapid rate of disease spread, though there should be little doubt it is occurring. The common Indonesian Islamic cultural practice of burial before sunset on the day that you die without autopsy, means that there is no effective epidemiological record of deaths from Corona or in fact from any other virus. The standard of Indonesia’s medical infrastructure, though improving rapidly is still very low. Doctors generally treat symptoms rather than looking for underlying causes. Hence any increased rate of death within the community may be put down as TB, Dengue, or a thousand other reasons. The stigma and potential social impact on a victims family if they died of Covid-19 is significant, with bodies banned from cemeteries and whole families potentially outcast or shunned. So there is no way to track the spread of the disease. This is simply a reality that the current administration must deal with, making containment and tracing strategies like Australia’s impossible to implement. The upcoming Islamic mass migration for Ramadhan known as Mudik will only add to this.

    Like it or not Indonesia is facing a rapid spread of disease with a high rate of death due to poor health infrastructure. The question is not whether or not this occurs, (as it already is) but rather whether it will lead to a massive and visible overload of hospitals and ensuing panic and social instability or not. There are many factors indicating that this may not occur. Indonesia’s much younger median age of 27, lower survival rates of covid-19 outside the body in the tropics and other factors may reduce the rates and or impacts of the disease. More importantly though the high levels of cultural ‘acceptance’ of fate within Indonesian society may just mean that the elderly and frail will simply die and be buried and the disease will become endemic without much fuss, as has been the case with most other diseases. If this is the case, as I am sure Jokowi’s administration hopes it is, then social stability can easily be ensured.

    Indonesia’s economy is very inward looking, as was proven during the recent global economic crisis in which indonesia was largely unaffected. The vast majority of Indonesian’s choose to eat Indonesian food, wear Indonesian clothes and use Indonesian products. Shortage such as those of Onions (which most Indonesians don’t actually use) and Garlic (which they do) is little more than a temporary blip in the market of products that are grown more cheaply in china. Overall though food security remains quite secure, farmers are farming, supplies are being transported and if panic buying can be constrained the food sector will be fine. International tourism may drop off but unlike Australia or even say Thailand and Singapore, this makes up very little of the national economy. Restarting national tourism quickly along with that from key international markets where possible (perhaps such as china) will be critical to the economies in the few highly tourism dependant areas such as Bali,Yogyakarta and Lombok, but for the rest of the country it remains insignificant.

    So Jokowi’s apparent strategy although seemingly harsh by western standards, is not as irrational as it may appear to many. Don’t test too much, or investigate deaths too much, so there is no real evidence of spread of disease to reduce panic. partial lock-down to slow things down so that you don’t get a mass media circus of hospitals on overload, but otherwise let the disease become endemic as it will anyway. Accept the minor economic loss of an unknown number of deaths, recognising this is largely amongst less economically productive members of society. Develop strategies for economic stabilisation and reinvigeration as soon as possible. At the same time slowly but in a controlled manner prepare for military/police intervention if things do get out of hand. But either way accept the inevitable that Covid-19 will be endemic and that a large but unmeasured number of people will die, and that western tourism though relatively small and insignificant overall wont return till they have a vaccine.

    Maintain national integrity and social stability, advance the economy as much as possible within current constraints, accept those things you cannot change and teh inevitable social cost. Jokowi’s strategy for management of the nation remains consistent.

  2. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    The British must have foresight when she swapped Bencoolen for the Dutch controlled Malacca in 1824,The treaty expressly placed the Malay Peninsula and Singapore under British influence while Sumatra and islands south of the Singapore Strait under Dutch control.
    In terms of legacy & in general, the British did a better job as a colonial master then the Dutch in providing better education, law and public infrastructures than the Dutch, despite the 350 years of Dutch colonial rule in “Netherlands East Indies”
    (Indonesia) before becoming independence in 1945 immediately 2 weeks after the Japanese surrendered.
    Indonesia lacked political stability and economic stability and was ruled by the military under guided democracy of Sukarno. Race riots against her Chinese immigrants (killing, burning, looting & raping) were rampant culminating the the “Confrontasi” with Malaysia in the 1960s and race riots in 1998. When Opposition Leader Amien Rais visited Australia in Oct 1998, the Indonesia Chinese community had invited me to a meeting with him and talked about the race riot and its implications.
    The recent covid19 crisis in Indonesia also gave rise to anti-Chinese sentiments with the same MO. Despite its rich lands and mineral wealth, the Indonesia has not achieved reached political maturity to sustain political stability, or developed new strategies to cement race relations within. Although negative views of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia have been on the decline, the Indonesian elite still promote the perception that the economy is in the hands of the Chinese, which is a great racial argument to stay in power.
    Indonesia has great potential and if it can stop playing the racial card and get its citizens united in purpose, it can become the No. 1 economy in SE Asia, surpassing Singapore.
    Australia now has a great opportunity to cement friendship with Indonesia through medical diplomacy as successfully used by China globally, by sending equipment and health personnel as foreign aid to Indonesia. When the crisis is over, Australia is in a position of influence with Indonesia for outreaching to the rest of SE Asia.

    • Avatar Dave Hodgkin says:

      I can’t comment on the limited interpretation of the dutch/british colonial era expressed above, but it is clear that Australia is largely irrelevant and irreverent to Indonesians. Both countries are much more concerned about looking north to ASEAN and beyond it to China than they are at looking towards each other. While Indonesians society is proudly based on respect and clearly defined hierarchies, Australians pride themselves on their larrikin culture of disrespect and pretence of an egalitarian hierarchy free society. Bali and the universities of Australia have always been the two hotspots of interaction between the two countries and both are now largely shutdown and will remain so for quite sometime. Indonesia cares little about Australia’s opinion, nor their clearly politically biased and manipulative aid programs. To think we are in a ‘position of influence with Indonesia;, maintains the naive and misguided position that DFAT and before it AusAID has held for years. Indonesia honestly cares little for the opinion of Ausyralia. We make up around 2% of their GDP and vice-versa. Indonesia knows that Australia doesn’t really care for or respect them, and to be frank in return they dont really care for or respect Australia. They know that any aid they are given is purely about ensuring Australians in Indonesia are safer, strengthening our borders and ensuring geopolitical stability.

      A few hundred thousand Indonesians dying from Covid-19 will upset Australia little unless it becomes a major media event. In which case Australia will use it as example of how dumb and incompetent our neighbours are. Only then will we provide much needed aid, which indonesia will except to be polite, but honestly not care whether it is given or not.

  3. Avatar R. N. England says:

    Indonesian culture has adapted to disease by encouraging a high birth rate. They actually need a high death rate so the population does not outgrow its resources.

    • Avatar Kien Choong says:

      Wow … be careful friend, how you express your ideas. I suspect most biologists/anthropologists would put it the other way round – i.e., a population’s high birth rate is a response to its high death rate. Might that be what you actually mean?

    • Avatar Dave Hodgkin says:

      This is simply naive and offensive!
      Like all countries in the world, birth rates are related to the families sense of surety that their children will survive to adulthood and that they will be able to ensure social welfare for the broader family. There is a demographic surge that occurs when modern health care and education first spreads throughout a country, and more children live to adulthood. This has clearly occurred in Indonesia. Achieving economic stability and adequacy of social security and social safety nets has been delayed in Indonesia through years of a west supported dictatorship. This has changed rapidly since the fall of Soeharto, with the introduction of BPJS, and much improved social security and in line with this birth rates have been dropping.
      Rich western societies have already been through this demographic boom and are now so secure that they are entering demographic stagnation and restriction. Parents in countries like Australia are no longer dependant on their children for welfare in their later years.
      It is stunning arrogant for a wealthy westerner to suggest that a high death rate is something that countries like Indonesia need or deserve.

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