DUNCAN GRAHAM.- Not a model land

Apr 7, 2020

Curious about life as a sheep? Visit Incredible Indonesia, as the tourist promos once hollered.

At domestic airports passengers are herded through a full-body drenching like the spray races used by Australian cockies to kill sheep lice. The bleaters then get scanned with a device like an ear-tag code reader.

Fortunately the authorities aren’t using arsenic plunge dips, once the standard treatment for the woolies’ parasites, or snipping lumps out of ears to mark brands.

Cars leaving cities also get a washdown. There’s little evidence these procedures frighten Covid-19 germs but presumably comfort some into believing the government has the pandemic under control.

It doesn’t. The latest modeling suggests the Indonesian death toll could match the US, now the most stricken nation. Yet the Australian media has so far focused more on the Big Apple than the Big Durian.

Indonesia currently has one of the highest Case Fatality Rates in the world – nudging ten per cent. A report in The Lancet medical journal estimates the CFR in China where the outbreak began at 1.38 per cent across all age groups.

Few Indonesians are being tested in a country where kits are limited along with facilities to accurately check results. Only 240 of the gold standard PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests are being performed every day according to the Health Ministry.

West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil told the local media: ‘I’m convinced that the number of cases is many times over the current figure. But because we haven’t tested that many people the data shows only a fraction.’

The government has not been open with its citizens. A public health emergency was declared at the end of March. This was four weeks after the first cases were confirmed. People were then urged to pray to keep the plague at bay.

President Joko Widodo has rebuffed calls for a lockdown, instead urging all to stay home, an instruction widely ignored. Crowds fill markets and shops and the roads remain busy, though less jammed than a month ago. Social distancing is rarely seen outside formal institutions like banks and government offices.

The latest figures from Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Centre show Indonesia has 2,273 confirmed cases and 198 deaths. Most have been in Jakarta where policy conflict between Governor Anies Baswedan and Widodo has been open and acerbic.

City prohibitions have been overturned by the national government leaving locals not knowing whether they’re Artha or Mawar. Intercity buses were stopped – then let loose. Toll roads were closed, and then opened.

A World Bank report claims only one in five Indonesians have enough cash to survive the crisis. Around 25 million – that’s the population of Australia – live on AUD 1.70 a day. A just introduced ‘staple food’ programme should keep the most needy alive.

The government has allocated Rp 405.1 trillion (AUD 41 billion) to what Widodo has reportedly labeled as ‘extraordinary measures to ensure the people’s health, safeguard the national economy and (ensure) financial system stability’.

By comparison Australia, with a population one eleventh of the Republic’s, is spending five times more – AUD 226.6 billion (including State inputs) plus AUD 105 billion from Reserve Bank loans.

The Jakarta cashflow favours ‘economic recovery’ (Rp 150 trillion) ahead of health which gets only half the handout though the need is acute. Australia’s ambassador Gary Quinlan warned stayputs that ‘critical medical care in Indonesia is significantly below Australian standards.’

That was diplomatic. While the fluro-saturated private clinics look much like their Western counterparts, public hospitals’ waiting rooms are ill-lit, overcrowded, chaotic and clogged by petty procedures. Doctors ‘forgetting’ appointments are commonplace as they often work two jobs.

Massaging data can cause blindness, but these stark stats from the World Bank reveal much: In Indonesia 25 per thousand live births never survive to pre-school. The Singapore figure is 2.8. It’s a 45-minute ferry ride between the two countries.

Apart from public health decision makers, when this is all over foremost among the pandemic’s casualties should be unconstrained business boosters. Last year Indonesia was unreservedly touted as the place to sow investments and reap massive profits as the rising middle class hungered for Western foods and goods.

Now the dollars are fleeing fast says Roland Rajah. The Lowy Institute’s International Economy Program director wrote in the AFR that more than AUD 16.5 billion has departed the archipelago since late January while the rupiah has tumbled 15 per cent:

‘Indonesia’s vulnerability is its reliance on capital inflows and evaporating commodity demand, combined with $US410 billion in external debt, mostly in US dollars.

‘Adding a failure to control the virus would create an even more dangerous cocktail – prompting capital outflows to accelerate and deepening a vicious cycle of falling growth, a plunging exchange rate, and ballooning debt.’

The figures above show the virus is not being controlled.

Then there’s the blame game. In ‘normal’ times Indonesians are friendly towards outsiders. At times of stress we’re easy targets. Just like Asians in Australia.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is reportedly receiving large numbers of complaints from Asians alleging racial discrimination related to Covid-19. Scapegoating is a bastardly response to a borderless plague but at least Canberra is concerned.

There’s no HRC statutory equivalent in Indonesia so no place to protest. Cop abuse? Cop it sweet.

North Sulawesi province is overwhelmingly Protestant and preparing for Easter, a time of hope. That didn’t stop slurs from villagers and a furious rant from a senior minister denouncing this journalist from Java a harbinger of the plague.

The synod head had preached that Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness showed self-isolation has Biblical authority. He wasn’t prepared to discuss the story of Christ touching lepers.

(Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in Indonesia.)

Duncan Graham / Journalist


A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Thomas Mann

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