News analysis

Coronavirus: Tighter rules with public health emergency but worries remain in Indonesia

SINGAPORE - Weeks of fiery debate over a lockdown in Indonesia to contain the coronavirus pandemic have finally come to an end, with President Joko Widodo declaring a public health emergency and ordering large-scale social distancing measures and tighter rules on movement by the people.

Under the new regulations announced on Tuesday (March 31), regional administrations - subject to the health minister's approval - are allowed to impose controls, including closing schools and workplaces and limiting religious activities and gatherings at public places. Civil emergency policies may be considered by the President as a last resort.

Since the emergency declaration by Mr Joko, seven of Indonesia’s 34 provinces, as well as 41 districts and cities have adopted new regulations. Some have extended school holidays and scrapped examinations while others have formed neighbourhood watch groups to bar strangers from loitering in their estates.

Medical workers have said that physical distancing is not enough, urging the government to impose a lockdown in places with soaring cases to stem transmission of the virus.

They have also said that ill-equipped health facilities and the lack of protective gear put the lives of healthcare workers at risk. With many unreported and untested cases, the crisis would only worsen and overwhelm the healthcare system, they added.

But Mr Joko has repeatedly expressed his opposition to a lockdown on social and economic concerns, while maintaining that it remains the prerogative of the central government to declare a national or territorial one.

Indonesia has recorded 1,677 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 157 deaths as at Wednesday (April 1), the highest in South-east Asia, but analysts say a lockdown may not be effective in tackling the spread of the virus in the sprawling archipelago.

Mr Made Supriatma, visiting fellow with ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, told The Straits Times that a lockdown was a way to enforce social distancing but may not be easily implemented in the world's fourth most populous country with 270 million people.

The government does not have enough budget or manpower, such as the police and military, to ensure people remain in their homes and that district borders are sealed off, he said.

The move would also be very detrimental to vulnerable groups such as the poor, and informal workers who have lost their jobs.

The urban poor, Mr Made noted, have borne the brunt of the economic fallout from Covid-19, with hundreds of thousands losing their jobs and returning to their villages from Jakarta in recent weeks.

 
 
 

"There is no need for a national lockdown. Indonesia is a big country and it would be better for the government to focus its limited resources in the hardest-hit regions," said Mr Made, referring to the capital, Jakarta, and the provinces of West Java and Banten.

Analysts have warned of violence, demonstrations and civil unrest if social welfare programmes did not accompany any declaration of a quarantine. If the crisis continued, people who are jobless, homeless, hungry and without financial safety nets may be forced to loot and riot, they said.

Ms Enny Sri Hartati, a senior analyst at Indonesia's Institute For Development of Economics and Finance, told The Straits Times that the stricter regulations announced by the President on Tuesday (March 31) could be considered a loose form of a lockdown.

"Monetary compensation must be given to the poor and informal workers who earn a daily wage to prevent chaos. Sembako must be distributed immediately too," she added, referring to the nine essential food items, including rice, oil and milk powder.

On Tuesday, Mr Joko announced a 405.1 trillion rupiah (S$35.2 billion) increase in the state budget to cushion the impact of the Covid-19. A sizeable portion, or 110 trillion rupiah, will be used to provide a social security net which includes include food assistance, electricity tariff discounts and waivers.

But worries remain over how swift the new mitigation measures can be implemented at the district level because of bureaucracy and red tape.

 
 
 

Ms Enny regretted the slow government response in managing the pandemic, and pointed out that the economy had already taken a pounding, with or without a lockdown.

"The earlier we manage Covid-19, the faster will the economy recover," she said.

Several countries have been taken by surprise by the speed of the coronavirus outbreak but managing it will be especially tricky for a large one, like Indonesia, with limited budget and resources.

Said Mr Made: "Until now, the situation is still calm and under control. If things get worse and this crisis drags on to a couple of months, the situation will change rapidly."