Luhut Binsar Panjaitan doesn’t read Pearls & Irritations. That’s obvious because the former general and Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s Mr Fixit alleged he was blindsided by the latest tsunami of Covid 19.
This column claims no exclusive insights by earlier predicting the plague would surge after Mudik (exodus). Millions defied instructions to stay put, instead heading to hometowns to mark the Idul Fitri end of the Ramadan fasting month. University of Indonesia epidemiologist Dr Pandu Rionos described this behaviour as ‘herd stupidity’.
Every credible publication was quoting named experts repeating the same warning. Common sense also shouted a clear message: Unconstrained crowds transmit infections.
Panjaitan’s claim for unknowing was rapidly dismissed. Griffith University doctoral candidate Dicky Budiman has 22 years experience with Indonesia’s Health Department and UN agencies. He told the nation’s premier broadsheet Kompas he’d repeatedly forewarned through mainstream and social media of an upcoming surge.
‘Right from the start, I said that 2021 could be far worse than 2020 even though there was a vaccine. The government’s strategic response to the pandemic failed to address fundamental issues such as early detection, testing and tracing, isolation and quarantine. Who was supplying information to him (Panjaitan)?’
On one day last week, almost 22,000 new cases and 467 deaths were recorded. The tally of tragedy so far is around 2.2 million positives and more than 58,000 deaths, the highest toll in Asia. (China, with a population five times larger, has reported 91,847 cases and 4,636 fatalities.)
Indonesia’s numbers are considered conservative. Ordinary Indonesian fear seeing doctors lest they’re told to take a test they can’t afford. Reuters reports Indonesia has jabbed more than 45 million arms. As all need two shots, 8.4 per cent of the country’s population has been vaccinated. The target now is two million a day.
Throughout 2020 and half of this year, Widodo resisted medical experts’ advice to lockdown the population of 273 million so hospitals can handle admissions and doctors get a grip on treating those at most risk.
The president’s consistent line has been the need to prioritise care for the poor by keeping the economy open. His reasoning has been the opposite of Australia’s –the economy must be closed to protect all. But workers and businesses Down Under have been underpinned by Job Seeker and Job Keeper while Indonesia offers limited welfare. Funds for the poor have allegedly been stolen by a minister and bureaucrats.
Widodo’s desultory approach has been Pemberlakuan Pembatasan Kegiatan Masyarakat, (Restrictions on Community Activities). These have been left to regions to enforce and widely ignored. As in Australia communication of government decisions has been chaotic. The PPKM has had no measurable effect on the spread of the pandemic.
The scientists’ push has been relentless and eventually successful. Widodo has now agreed to shut down Java and Bali for the first half of July. But getting the law obeyed is another matter in a society that treats the road code as a set of suggestions rather than rules to be obeyed.
Panjaitan is no dunce. Apart from being Indonesia’s version of Canberra’s vaccination task force supremo Lieutenant General John Frewen, the US-educated former Special Forces soldier is one of four Coordinating Ministers and regarded as a sane voice in Cabinet. So why play the startled hare?
To shield his boss from the shame of showing weakness by wavering. In Javanese culture, power is not just a political win but a mystical gift that only favours the resolute. As a Protestant from Sumatra, Panjaitan can play the fall guy.
What happens now to the wee workers Widodo said he was trying to protect? The International Labour Organisation estimates the nation’s small and medium enterprises contribute 27 per cent to the GDP; they also keep millions of families alive.
Like others, Malang micro-trader Sapatun said she’ll be ignoring Widodo’s order and continue selling bananas from her two-wheel pushcart. She makes between Rp 30,000 to Rp 50,000 (AUD 3 – 5) a day, depending on whether others have been poaching on her round. After expenses, she usually scores a dollar-fifty a day profit.
Sapatun doesn’t use Indonesian, so the widow who thinks she may be in her late 60s relies on Javanese-speaking customers to explain the news from Jakarta. Their source is Facebook gossip spiced with tales of hospitals killing patients. The reality reinforces the myths with stories of 60 dying in Yogyakarta because oxygen supplies failed, and tents in car parks used as ICU wards.
‘I have enough rice to last for about a week, but no vegetables or chicken,’ Saputan said. ‘If I can’t work I’ll have to go without. Where will I get money to eat?’
It would be warming to think Widodo’s reluctance to lockdown comes from being raised in a riverside shack in the Central Java city of Solo. The story goes that his everyman background helps him relate to the plight of people like Saputan and the close to 30 million earning below AUD 30 a month. That’s the Asian Development Bank’s poverty line.
The lockdown officially started on 3 July. At daybreak, residents peered nervously around to check for enforcers – army, police or local volunteers? Not a uniform in sight except at a closed top-end boulevard.
There are NO ENTRY signs on public parks and restaurants, but street eateries keep busy with sit-down customers. The markets remain as crowded as always. Mask wearing has been mandated, which is being interpreted as optional. Shops stay open. No rush on toilet rolls as Indonesians wash, not wipe.
Otherwise, the central East Java city of Malang with close to a million residents went about its business as usual. Reports suggest it’s much the same across the archipelago, though Jakarta hospitals are said to be in crisis.
Sapatun and her fellow mini traders have little to fear breaking the rules. However Widodo and Panjaitan will have much to worry about if their desultory containment plans don’t work, the health systems turn turtle and the populace turns riotous.
Australian journalist Duncan Graham writes from Indonesia.