Coronavirus: Indonesia

Anti-lockdown business groups said to have swayed Jokowi, fuelling surge in cases

JAKARTA • When Indonesian President Joko Widodo spoke with influential business groups on June 30 to discuss imposing a full-scale lockdown as Covid-19 cases spiked, he was met with widespread resistance.

Earlier that day, senior ministers, including Indonesia's top health official, visited the presidential palace in Jakarta with a clear message: the caseload - and death toll - would spike dramatically if the government did not immediately impose sweeping measures. They called on the President, popularly known as Jokowi, to restrict the movement of all people in the hardest-hit areas, according to a person familiar with the meetings who asked not to be identified.

At the time, it was evident things were getting bad: Some 24 hours earlier, the Indonesian Red Cross had issued an appeal for urgent care, saying one of its hospitals was "overflowing" and the Delta variant of the coronavirus was driving South-east Asia's biggest economy "closer to the edge of a Covid-19 catastrophe".

But in a Zoom call with the President later on June 30, the business associations pushed back against the recommendations from health experts, the person said. Led by Mr Rosan Roeslani, who until a few weeks ago was chairman of the Indonesia Business Chamber of Commerce and Industry, known as Kadin, various speakers said the measures would stifle the country's economic recovery and force massive layoffs.

The following day, Mr Widodo's administration announced restrictions that avoided the full lockdown proposed by health officials.

Three spokesmen for the presidential palace did not respond to calls or text messages on the June 30 meeting. Mr Roeslani, who is being vetted by the administration to become Indonesia's next ambassador to the US, did not respond to multiple calls and text messages.

After that July 1 announcement, Indonesia became the new virus epicentre in Asia. Daily infections more than doubled to surpass India's Covid-19 case numbers before peaking last weekend, and World Health Organisation data shows Indonesia is now reporting more deaths each day than any country across the globe.

The President now faces a choice: Stick with the limited measures announced or ease the restrictions in a bid to protect the livelihoods of millions even as the virus runs rampant.

"There is reluctance to take the bitter pill of restricting business," said Mr Achmad Sukarsono, associate director and lead analyst for Indonesia at Control Risks. "Indonesia is not using health-specific considerations as the main reasoning behind its policies. It's more economic survival, and that comes from a lot of demand from people around the President, many of whom have businesses or are tied to businesses."

The push-and-pull between the President and industry groups shows the sway business interests hold over politicians in Jakarta - particularly when they warn of job losses that could backfire during elections.

Indonesia is home to more than 70 million informal workers, many of them in services most affected by tighter anti-virus curbs. The pandemic had already dragged as many as 2.75 million Indonesians below the poverty line as of last September and cost 1.6 million people their jobs, according to government data.

Earlier this month, Indonesia lost its prized upper middle-income classification from the World Bank after only a year.

The increasingly desperate situation is starting to affect Mr Widodo's popularity, which overall still remains relatively high.

A poll released on Monday by Lembaga Survei Indonesia shows his approval rate dropping to 59.6 per cent on June 21 from 68.9 per cent in December. Meanwhile, the hashtag calling for his resignation, #BapakPresidenMenyerahlah or "just give up, Mr President", has been trending on social media.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2021, with the headline 'Anti-lockdown business groups said to have swayed Jokowi, fuelling surge in cases'. Subscribe