Indonesia's virus response: Not tough enough?

Indonesia's virus response: Not tough enough?

Indonesian government has rejected a lockdown in favour of more targeted responses, but public compliance is the wild card.

Health workers take a break at a coronavirus testing centre in Jakarta last Thursday. Photo: REUTERS
Health workers take a break at a coronavirus testing centre in Jakarta last Thursday. Photo: REUTERS

The Indonesian government has been facing a barrage of criticism over its response, perceived by many as lacklustre and uncoordinated, to the Covid-19 crisis.

Critics point to authorities' choice not to impose a serious lockdown in the world's fourth most populous country, alleged lack of transparency about real case numbers, and policies that are seen as putting the economy ahead of public health.

Since the first two cases in Indonesia were confirmed in early March, Covid-19 has infected 10,118 people and led to 792 deaths as of last Thursday. Jakarta is virus central with almost 4,200 cases, and infections have now spread to all 34 provinces. However, the government still says that imposing a nationwide lockdown would only make the situation worse.

Instead, the government is counting on partial lockdown measures -- with approval from the health ministry -- in areas where the number of infections merits large-scale social restrictions, known locally as PSBB.

Doni Monardo, head of the Covid-19 national task force, said last Monday that the strict lockdowns imposed in a number of regions and countries, including some that are densely populated, had led to more widespread outbreaks.

He gave no examples but Singapore, for one, has struggled to contain a surge in coronavirus cases among migrant labourers confined at close quarters in dormitories.

Speaking at a televised news conference and wearing his army uniform instead of the usual civilian uniform of the national disaster mitigation agency, which he heads, the three-star general called current control measures "a very good effort, since we have been able to maintain a balance between paying attention to the [public] health aspect and the psychological aspects of society."

That view has found support from Sulfikar Amir, an associate professor of sociology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. While he is a proponent of the lockdown policy, he said he understood why the Indonesian government chose not to take that approach, as the cost of providing people's staple needs while in lockdown, as required by law, would be astronomical.

"Social distancing is a more voluntary approach, but the problem is that it depends on social compliance, and for the public to comply, it requires trust in the government," he said during an online discussion on April 26.

However, a perceived lack of public trust in the government has made large-scale social restriction measures, now imposed at a provincial level in Jakarta, West Sumatra and Gorontalo and on a smaller scale in more than 20 other cities and regencies, ineffective.

In Jakarta, where restrictions have been in place for three weeks and will last until May 22, there are still areas where large concentrations of people are visible and traffic jams seem to have picked up again.

A survey of public opinion about the restrictions in the Greater Jakarta area, conducted by the pollster KedaiKOPI, produced a score of 8.4 out of 10 for the effectiveness of limiting public transport use and the banning of most public activities.

The poll also showed that only 32.6% of the respondents understand they have to wash their hands to reduce the risk of being infected, while 25.7% said they would stay at home and 25.4% used face masks.

The low awareness of hand washing showed that relying solely on voluntary public participation would make the measures ineffective, according to Dr Daeng Faqih, the president-elect of the Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI).

"There must be some supervision. This is an emergency situation and it would be too long to wait for the change in public behaviour," Dr Faqih told Asia Focus.

Another survey conducted on April 16 by the national Covid-19 task force showed that 69% of 5,155 respondents saw that others around them were adhering to restrictions and only 4% of them did not understand what the restrictions were for, suggesting that the vast majority of respondents understand the measures.

Wiku Adisasmito, an epidemiologist with the task force, said the government's efforts are aimed more at a permanent behaviour change with the community becoming more disciplined in taking preventive actions instead of having to depend on curative actions.

"If we can collectively change our behaviour, reaching 70% of the population from smaller groups up to the largest scale nationally, this will allow us to win the battle," he said.

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