DUNCAN GRAHAM It’s looking real bad next door

Apr 3, 2020

Doomsayers are society’s detestables yet needed as truth-tellers. So here goes: The omens are awful. Thousands of Indonesians are threatened by the Covid-19 pandemic through denial and indecision. Responses have been too few, too late and too uncoordinated.

At last count New South Wales had 2,298 coronavirus cases and ten deaths. Australia’s most populous State has eight million citizens. Indonesia’s population is 34 times larger yet has so far detected less than 1,677 carriers and recorded 157 deaths. (All figures from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Tracker.)

The archipelago’s mortality rate is currently almost nine per cent of confirmed cases, just behind the shocking stats from Italy. Internationally the figure is less than three per cent.

In adjacent Malaysia, another Muslim-majority country with a population nine times smaller than Indonesia, 2,908 cases have been detected and 45 have died.

Most Covid-19 positives in Indonesia have come from people who sought swabs after feeling unwell or reckoned they’d been near someone looking crook. There’s still no mass testing, though this is promised.

(Weird aside: NSW Health uses Vimeo to spread useful info. Indonesia has banned the free video platform because it won’t censor occasional nudity.)

Foreign alarmists are as unwelcome in Indonesia as professional journos at a Trump presser, so here’s the opinion of three top local scientists, Iqbal Elyazar, Sudirman Nasir and Suharyo Sumowidagdo. They’re involved in public health and epidemiology.

Writing in The Conversation they claimed the infection rate ‘may increase exponentially’ if there’s no swift effort to curb the spread.

‘We estimate – with data gathered since March 2 and assuming the doubling times are similar as Iran’s and Italy’s – that at the end of April 2020 there may be 11,000-71,000 Covid-19 cases in Indonesia.’

Far bleaker is separate modeling by the University of Indonesia. This warns that if distancing and testing aren’t mandated – almost impossible in a densely populated country where discipline is lax – there could be 2.5 million positive cases by the end of the month.

So far only the standard cautions about staying indoors and apart are being promoted and disregarded.

Indonesia’s health system is sick. The government reports 1.17 beds per thousand citizens, the lowest rate in ASEAN. (Australia has 3.84 per thousand). WHO says Australia has 3.6 ‘physicians’ per thousand people – Indonesia 0.38.

Low testing levels and unreliable detection systems are skewing the Indonesian figures, but there are many reasons why the world’s fourth most populous nation appears to be facing a heavy tragedy. After weeks of prescribing prayer the government is only now accepting it has a mortal problem.

It won’t be the Apocalypse as predicted in the Koran, or Armageddon as prophesised in the Bible, but it will fracture the major faiths’ foundations as believers become questioners, perhaps heralding a new Enlightenment.

Religion is to Indonesians as sport is to Australians, deeply embedded in the culture. Covid-19 is widely seen as the just wrath of a vengeful deity offended by sinners. These are identified by extremist preachers claiming exclusive WhatsApp lines to an almighty.

When asked why he was attending a big religious gathering one man told a reporter: ‘I fear Allah more than a virus.’ There have been disturbing videos of relatives unwrapping plastic-covered corpses and hearses being chased away from cemeteries.

Distrust is widespread in a country where corruption thrives and the rule of law does not. Although General Soeharto’s 32-year despotic rule ended in 1998 with the launch of democracy, the five presidents since have been unable or unwilling to castrate Jakarta’s venal oligarchs who are still screwing the nation.

The slow-speaking President Joko Widodo, now in his second and final five year term, has successfully tackled the sprawling Republic’s infrastructure but not its handling of the pandemic. Unfortunately he’s no orator like the nation’s founder Soekarno so has been unable to inspire the masses.

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has stressed that ‘people must have access to accurate information to protect themselves and others. (Misinformation) causes confusion and spreads fear to the general public.’

Widodo wasn’t listening, preferring the advice of Washington’s Dr Donald. Last week Widodo said his government was preparing medicines, including three million doses of chloroquine ‘having been proven to cure Covid-19 in other countries’.

It hasn’t – but panic buying followed. The anti-malarial treatment, which has serious side effects, hasn’t been approved by the WHO to treat Covid-19 while clinical trials are ongoing.

Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute has called Widodo’s initial response ‘worryingly blasé’:

‘The Covid-19 crisis is revealing the weaknesses in his tactical approach to politics, his ad hoc leadership style, and the lack of strategic thinking in his government.’

It’s clear that Widodo’s dithering is based on fears of the masses taking control, chaos erupting and mobs overwhelming the police. This happened in 1998 when Soeharto fell and to a lesser extent last year when the former general Prabowo Subianto lost the election to Widodo.

Compounding the situation is Mudik (exodus), the mass movement of city folk back to their regional hometowns to celebrate Idul Fitri, the end of the fasting month on 23 May. It’s the most important event on the Islamic calendar.

Widodo has been toying with the idea of banning Mudik, so tens of thousands have already started boarding public transport and straddling motorbikes. If their religious duties are thwarted some will seek scapegoats.

Uprisings are rarely spontaneous. Instead they’re engineered by what Widodo has called ‘shadow figures’ working on political agendas. They pay street thugs called preman to throw rocks and burn tyres. The giveaways are the printed placards, the demands in perfect English.

The obvious targets are non-pribumi (not native-born) a euphemism for ethnic Chinese, even those whose families have been in the archipelago for centuries. Most are Christian, Buddhist or Confucian. Almost 90 per cent of the population follows Islam.

If the rapes, killings and burnings that followed Soeharto’s fall last century restart, the persecuted will again rush for refuge in Singapore and Australia. Thousands have permanent residence status, homes and businesses, particularly around Perth.

Will Canberra turn them back?

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist self-isolating in Indonesia.

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