DUNCAN GRAHAM The year of living disastrously

Most days the ABC website publishes graphs showing the trajectory of Covid-19 cases. The charts feature nine countries including Taiwan, Japan and Australia. Though not Indonesia.

A recluse new to an atlas might guess the world’s most populous Islamic nation is as distant from Australia as Alaska so of little consequence. A fair assumption based on minimal news coverage Down Under.

Once the isolate’s ignorance of geography has been corrected one explanation remains: Australians judge events next door unworthy of their attention.

Should the situation in Indonesia turn toxic as poverty and disorder get stirred into the virus response, then a rethink may be necessary. As that hasn’t happened yet no thinking is in order.

The Jakarta government is facing the almost impossible task of stopping people congregating during the holy month of Ramadan. Fast-breaking, praying, chanting, partying and gift-giving are traditional communal events where crowds pack tight.

There’s now supposed to be a lockdown, but only the well-off have fridges and space to stockpile food. The wong cilik (ordinary people) continue to haggle daily in crowded markets, often run on roadsides.

President Joko Widodo, with the backing of the two main Islamic organisations Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama,has told citizens to eat, pray and stay at home.

But since the fall of dictator General Soeharto in 1998 central power has been diluted allowing provinces to set their own rules.

Unsurprisingly videos from hyper-religious Aceh (North Sumatra) show mosques packed with men kneeling shoulder-to-shoulder in defiance of government edicts and medical advice.

That’s largely because neither authority is trusted, the masses preferring ancient scriptures and WhatsApp gossip to modern science. It sounds pre-Enlightenment but in the current context understandable as the government has made an appalling fist of telling what’s going on.

Widodo, a former small-town furniture trader with no military or elite family connections, has strong local-lad appeal. Early supporters clad him in the garb of a social reformer but he’s put that gear in the rag-bag.

Instead he’s focused on infrastructure with astonishing success, building roads, rail lines and ports with Chinese loans and expertise.

Unlike the gorillas in the mist of Western politics who barge their way to the front he’s a low-profile Javanese. This is the largest ethnic group in Indonesia reputedly restrained, respectful – and Janus-faced.

After initially muttering assurances about the Republic’s immunity lest truth stir panic, Widodo has now pulled back the blinds, telling staff to be transparent; they’ve yet to obey.

Widodo is no Angela Merkel so finds it tough to explain the Covid-19 tsunami and rally his nation of 270 million to resist. He relies on advisors hired since he won a second five-year term last year. Unfortunately his Onward Indonesia Cabinet is going backwards, its spokesfolk’s comments more flawed than factual.

Endy Bayuni, former editor of The Jakarta Post decried the confusion being tipped out by the Palace: ‘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.’

The professionals are in Reuters where stay-put journos have been sifting the statistics and asking the questions that make authorities squirm. Revelations that the death toll from ‘acute coronavirus symptoms’ is at least 2,200 higher than the official figure of 831 have been backed by independent health experts.

The testing rate is abysmal with just 10,843 cases detected. Some of the unwell are spooked by seeking a nostril swab. A positive result could mean a third-rate hospital stay and family hounded from their village.

The other problems are cultural and administrative.

As outlined in earlier columns, sickness and deaths are often explained as ‘the will of Allah’ with little interest in knowing causes. Bodies are buried the day of departure or shortly after. Data collection is haphazard and seldom centralised.

There’s a plus to this mismanagement: Not all understand the raging pandemic could have been slowed with resolute and early government action, so few scapegoats – apart from the fallback Chinese.

Indonesian researchers Ika Karlina Idris and Nuurrianti Jalli writing in The Conversation have been checking tweets, finding many blame Chinese tourists and workers adding: ‘There was also a strong sentiment that the Chinese deserved the virus because of their repression of Muslims in Uyghur.’

There’s grumbling among politicians, academics and medical experts who know how other countries are handling the crisis, but no eruptions. Yeats’ last century fears ‘that things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’, are ever-present, though currently dormant.

The leading critic, restrained during the fasting month, is Anies Baswedan, a personable US-educated former university rector tipped as a starter in the 2024 Presidential race. He’s governor of Jakarta, the job Widodo used to launch himself into the palace.

Baswedan’s academic and family credentials are impressive. Grandfather Abdurrahman Baswedan was an Arab-Indonesian revolutionary, journalist, politician, diplomat and national hero.

Government incompetency isn’t confined to communications. Indonesia has a social support system supposedly helping the poor survive using the Rp 400 billion (AUD 41 milliard) Village Funds programme.

Indonesian academics Victoria Fanggidae and Jonatan Lassa, also writing in The Conversation, claim the government is still ‘developing guidelines’ to transfer cash from the funds: ‘The country’s bureaucracy, as well as its poor financial management, have prevented Indonesia from helping people in need during this difficult time.’

If the problems get fixed each household should get AUD 63 a month for the next quarter.

According to the Badan Pusat Statistik (Central Statistics Agency – BPS), almost 25 million citizens live below the poverty line. A similar number ‘remains vulnerable to falling into poverty, as their income hovers marginally above the national poverty line’.

The figures were published before Covid-19 struck tipping more than 1.2 million out of work and adding to the seven million already unemployed, according to the Manpower Ministry.

The BPS defines the ‘national poverty line’ as Rp 440,538 per person per month. In Australian money that’s $1.53 a day.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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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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