No filter: A social media star wakes Indonesia up to the harsh realities of Covid-19

Aspiring comedian Gusti Bintang took to social media to make the case to Indonesians that they need to stay home. PHOTO: BINTANGEMON/INSTAGRAM

JAKARTA - President Joko Widodo urged his country earlier this month to study, work and pray at home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, so many took off for the beaches and hilltop retreats that dot the periphery of the capital that he was soon forced to admonish residents that the measures were not a chance to go on holiday.

Now, the streets of the capital are empty. On Tuesday (March 31), the President declared a health emergency and paroled tens of thousands of prisoners.

And while the option of quarantining Jakarta was discussed and dismissed during a virtual Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the notion has barely raised a murmur of dissent among a populace that until recently was more focused on getting away.

To be sure, the about-face in public attitude from nonchalance to vigilance can be linked to government's ramped-up efforts as well as a steady uptick in infection rates.

But it can also be chalked up to the efforts of one Gusti Bintang, a 23-year-old aspiring comedian who took to social media to make the case to Indonesians that they need to stay home.

"People didn't get the message," Mr Gusti told The Straits Times, referring to Mr Joko's call for social distancing earlier this month. "They didn't understand the danger."

They do now.

Starting last week, the university student has posted on Instagram a series of videos that has attracted nearly 13 million views. The clips excoriate Indonesians for their cavalier attitudes toward the pandemic.

"If your life is in God's hands, then go squat down on a tollway," he says at one point.

"Maybe an Innova will come kiss you," he taunts, referring to the popular Toyota people carrier here.

He also lays into the baffling but common practice here of fighting colds with a practice known as kerok - drawing up welts by scraping a coin down the back of the rib cage to let out a purported excess of air that is widely believed to cause the sniffles.

"This is not a cold, where you can just scrape it away," Mr Gusti said. "If you have coronavirus, the person doing the kerok for you will get it too."

Indonesia's government has come in for criticism for its initial a flat-footed response to the coronavirus, which has infected more than 1,400 and claimed 122 lives.

Last week, the Independent Journalist Alliance complained that the government was not following its own social-distancing guidelines when it convened a press conference at Jakarta's Soekarno Hatta International Airport to mark the arrival of medical supplies from China to treat Covid-19 patients.

Indonesia's first cases of the coronavirus did not surface until March 2. Prior to that, Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto and Vice-President Ma'ruf Amin credited the lack of cases to prayer and divine intervention.

But Mr Joko's government is now racing to keep up. On Tuesday, he declared a national public health crisis, thereby unlocking resources to help contain the virus. The country will parole 30,000 inmates to ease the chance of spread throughout the country's overcrowded prisons.

At an open Web forum last week conducted by the Australian National University for media and experts, Mr Gusti was singled out for helping to rally public opinion to support social-distancing measures.

"Luckily we've been learning from this amazing young man," Mr Rizki Siregar, a PhD student at the University of California studying the social and economic impact of Covid-19, told attendees.

"He's been very good at giving a clear, informed reason why we should care."

To be sure, social media is alight with posts on the pandemic and plenty of famous personalities are pitching in to raise awareness, but nothing comes close to efforts by Mr Gusti, who uses the handle @bintangemon.

Last week, television journalist Najwa Shihab hosted a virtual concert and interviews with Indonesian musicians that attracted more than half a million additional views on YouTube.

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Former health minister Nafsiah Mboi, who turns 80 in July, admits to never having heard of Mr Gusti. She nevertheless says Mr Joko failed to turn to social media to help marshal public opinion.

As health minister, Ms Nafsiah was credited with halting the spread of bird flu with temperature checks at airports and quarantines, and introducing life-saving anti-retroviral medicine to more than 100,000 patients.

"A public health crisis needs all the leaders to make the right signals and lead by example," she said.

Mr Gusti, who has been doing stand-up comedy for five years, calls the pandemic the challenge of his generation.

He says Indonesians tend to be complacent, something he intends to continue to challenge.

"We need to try our best first," Mr Gusti said."And then put our trust in God."

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