Fear God, not the pandemic in Indonesia.

Jul 13, 2021

July 20 will be a big day in Indonesia.  It marks the end of more than two weeks of lockdown, and it’s Bloody Tuesday – Idul Adha, the feast of the sacrifice. This year participants may become victims.

The Old Testament story has Ibrahim (Abraham) ready to knife his son Ismail (Isaac) to obey a celestial command. Filicide was avoided when the lad was substituted with a lamb. Putting faith first is cruelling Jakarta’s bid to get citizens to recognise the pandemic is real.

Just after dawn on 20 July, the yards of Indonesia’s mosques and adjacent streets will run red. Thousands of conscious billy goats, rams and young bulls will have their throats slit, dying slowly while the slaughtermen pray aloud.

The butchers should also be imploring the deity to keep the people safe. Crowds will gather to watch the gory scene and collect their meat. Many will be taking homesickness, maybe even death.

Psychologist and civil rights activist Alissa Wahid fears the religious event will be another Covid-19 super spreader unless the national government moves to cancel or control. This is unlikely as the Joko Widodo administration dreads a backlash from religious leaders.

The eldest daughter of fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid, aka Gus Dur, told an Australian National University Indonesia Project webinar this month that leadership in controlling the pandemic was absent at national and regional levels:

“There’s been a lack of preparedness in crisis management and an inability to face brutal facts. We could have done much better.  Is this a failure of government? Yes.”

Wahid claimed ultra-conservative preachers – Muslim and Christian – are telling congregations through videos that the government, military, police and scientists are communists challenging the will of the deity, so messages urging vaccination must be disobeyed.

“They are saying there’s nothing we can do, the government is doomed, Indonesia is doomed because mosques are closing down (to reduce the spread of infection). Putting religion first goes to so many aspects of everyday life.

“The country is down on its knees.  Numbers are bleak, hospitals are collapsing. Many sick people are not reporting to clinics. We are in an era of distrust.”

Wahid’s comments need to be put in context. Javanese are reluctant to confront, preferring harmony – an essential quality where millions are squashed in densely-populated kampongs.

The brutality of Australian politics is absent in serious discussion of state affairs by reputable figures.  Much criticism is muted by “however” and other adverbs to soften blows and appease the target.

Wahid’s Islamic credentials help shield her from all but the most acidic attacks. She’s General Secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama’s Family Welfare Agency promoting strong and moderate families. NU is Indonesia’s biggest Muslim organisation with more than 50 million members

She’s also the National Coordinator of the Gusdurian network across 140 cities promoting interfaith dialogue and democracy, the issues which drove her late father. Being blunt carries risks.  Chauvinists lurk, ready to rip reputations and besmirch motives.

A few others are getting braver as the virus bites deep and frustration mounts. The self-styled Consortium for Public Health has publicly criticised Widodo’s apparent refusal to take full responsibility for mishandling the pandemic.

One line in the 24 civil society group’s open letter would resonate in Australia: “Forget, for once, about political image, focus on handling the pandemic.”

The Jakarta Post’s editor-at-large Ary Hermawan – formerly with Amnesty International –  wrote: “… we can no longer ignore how the ongoing health crisis has exposed the structural problems underpinning our democracy, how the state has failed us in one of the most challenging times in history.

“Corruption and rent-seeking remain rampant during the pandemic … the democratic institutions we set up in the Reform Era (after the fall of President Soeharto in 1998) have been co-opted by a small group of people who are only interested in accumulating wealth and power.

“The bad news is that there is no quick fix for this. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that a structural transformation of our body politic is far past due.”

Although growing attacks on the Widodo administration’s incompetence are heartfelt they’re unlikely to see regime change. It’s different next door where the United Malays National Organisation, the nation’s largest political party, has withdrawn support for PM Muhyiddin Yassin over his handling of the pandemic.

Indonesia doesn’t follow the Westminster system of government and shadow ministers. There’s no structured opposition or credible stand-by ready to walk on stage should the government fail.

Vice president Ma’ruf Amin, 78, is seldom seen. Student unions have dubbed him ‘King of Silence’ and his boss ‘King of Lip Service’. The former NU cleric was chosen as Widodo’s running mate to capture the Islamic vote.

Daily cases of Covid 19 were around 5,000 a month ago. That figure has now multiplied eightfold. Some days more than a thousand deaths are reported. Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Centre reports about 2.5 million cases and more than 65,000 deaths since the virus arrived in the archipelago last year.

Yet denial continues. According to Wahid, leaders in some towns are reporting their communities are Covid-free to avoid the shame of disclosing incompetent management. On one day Gusdurians reported a total of 832 deaths gleaned from medical sources, but the Jakarta government claimed the toll was 549.

The media has also been a scapegoat for reporting bad news of the plague, with police asserting verified stories published by responsible newspapers have been hoaxes.

Economist Dr Rimawan Pradiptyo from Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University told the ANU webinar local organisations were trying to fill the holes caused by government maladministration, including overlaps and departmental silo mentality.

SONJO (Sambatan – voluntary community work, and Jogja aka Yogyakarta), started in the Central Java city in March last year. It now has 23 self-help groups and 1,800 members. They rely on donations, eschewing government funds and advertising, using the networks of the wildly popular WhatsApp messaging system to spread accurate information.

SONJO members support the vulnerable and those at risk of infection, linking the willing with the needy, helping the poor cope with authorities and source necessities, like coffins and oxygen. It has 60 shelters for patients needing to isolate. To the outsider, these look like regular tasks for public servants.

Pradiptyo: “Unfortunately we have limits. We have no authority. What we need to do now is let the government do the business.”

Wahid: “We are getting to the edge of the capacity of volunteers and the community movement. We cannot take over the roles of government but we can try to help in limited ways. If Idul Adha goes ahead we should brace ourselves for an August impact.”

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