Indonesia’s haphazard pandemic response is no holiday

Dec 8, 2021
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Indonesia's male population remains in the grip of a serious tobacco addiction. (Image: Unsplash)

While the president has banned Christmas holidays in a bid to prevent COVID transmission, the enforcement of decrees has been fitful at best.

Joko Widodo is Indonesia’s Ebenezer Scrooge. The president has done more than cancel Christmas and New Year holidays; he’s also reinstated 10 days of quarantine for international visitors who chance to squirm their way into the archipelago.

There have been more rah-rah stories of Bali on the cusp of welcoming foreigners in time for the year-end break than mutations of Covid. Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Sandiaga Uno started cheering in September. His enthusiasm was much applauded by overseas media which forgot to download the scepticism app vital for reporting on Indonesia. Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport opened on October 14 but the control tower has yet to see an international flight on an approach path.

Sorry to disappoint those seeking cheap villas served by low-paid staff, but there’ll be no passing through the Candi Bentar (split gateways) into the Island of the Gods anytime soon: scrub Kuta and its plastic-strewn beaches off the must-see lists.

Warning: that was the situation as my keyboard was being tapped. However, things could be better or worse by the time the story’s on your screen. For Jakarta’s responses to the virus have been as confusing and contradictory as any regulations proclaimed in Canberra or the state capitals.

Almost every day there are new Pemberlakuan Pembatasan Kegiatan Masyarakat (Enforcement of Restrictions on Community Activities) edicts supposedly being enforced by the police, military and community groups. Involving soldiers in civic issues was the dwi-fungsi (two functions) policy used by authoritarian president Soeharto (1965-98). Human rights activists regard the policy’s revival to cope with a pandemic response as a sign of “democratic regression“.

Johns Hopkins University records show around 4.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 144,000 deaths in Indonesia so far — figures considered too low by independent epidemiologists. To date about 140 million Indonesians have received their first vaccination shot and 97 million their second needle. That’s about 36 per cent of the total population. Children over six are eligible. Despite these stats, internationally Indonesia ranks “low” for the disease.

Vaccination is supposed to be compulsory. The jabs are free and reluctance to bare arms is reported to be based on ignorance and isolation rather than an exercise of so-called sovereign rights. The government can punish vaccination refusers by cutting social assistance programs or even fines, though that’s rare.

Indonesians haven’t been waving placards and carrying gallows outside parliament to uphold their freedom to be fools. Instead, they’ve applied the time-honoured Indonesian approach to handling authorities: Don’t challenge, just agree, then ignore.

Here’s how it works: Although the uniforms were a giveaway, the footage could have been dropped into Australian TV news with hardly an edit. Smart, polite young police officers respectfully asking motorists about their vaccination status and distributing brochures on precautions.

For those living outside Jakarta, the police PR efforts looked foreign. Research published in Australia in 2013 found that “public opinion overwhelmingly depicts Indonesia’s police force as corrupt, brutal, and inept”. The situation has improved with better training and recruitment, but distrust lingers.

Although the Indonesian government has passed decrees on movement, masks, distances and gatherings similar to those made in Australia, enforcement is fitful. When cameras are switched off, the police go off duty.

In a bid to prevent a blow-out of Omicron and its mutations-in-waiting, Jakarta has banned bureaucrats and workers in state-owned and private companies from taking leave between Christmas Eve and January 2. The President said: “We hope that we can manage this well because almost all epidemiologists are afraid that what triggers a third wave could be during Christmas and New Year.”

Before Covid, Christmas Day and January 1 were officially holidays. Many used the week between to stay out of the office and head to villages to catch up with family. They’ve already had one chance, in May during Idul Fitri, the religious festival marking the end of the fasting month. Orders were made to halt the city exodus, but the bans didn’t stop innovative Indonesians from getting through or past roadblocks, sometimes by bribing the police. That’s likely to happen again later this month.

Celebrating the birth of Jesus is a big deal for Christians in Indonesia, whose numbers approach the population of Australia, but is of less interest to the 87 per cent who follow the Prophet. That statistic is shaky and based on the compulsion to confess a government-approved religion, stamped on every adult’s ID card. Civil libertarians regularly try to get the law erased, arguing that faith is personal, but the powerful Islamic lobby fights hard, fearing the nation would wander towards Western agnosticism, shrinking preachers’ power and status.

Although Christians’ rights (religious freedom is guaranteed in the constitution) to celebrate will be contained and muted as a public health measure, devout Muslims will be flying to Mecca this month for their rites. They will travel for the lesser pilgrimage umrah after Saudi Arabia lifted travel restrictions and opened its holy sites.

Unlike the mandatory haji, which can be performed only at a specific time (next year in mid-July), umrah can be done at any time. For nine days the Indonesians will mix with thousands from countries such as India and Pakistan and then return home. This seems like a formula for spreading the virus; it’s certainly distressing doctors. Omicron has been detected in the Arab kingdom, though not yet in Indonesia.

At the start of the pandemic last year, the then health minister Terawan Agus Putranto’s prescription was prayer. “It’s our nation’s right to rely on the Almighty,” the Catholic army doctor told journalists. Which sounds a bit like Australian luddites’ reliance on… whoops, better stop there. Australian politicians lodge defamation writs to squash unpalatable comments, but Indonesian clerics access blasphemy laws.

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