News analysis

Worries remain in Indonesia despite tighter rules

People walk through a disinfectant chamber before entering a mall in Surabaya on March 31, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

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 as well as tighter rules on people’s movements.

Under the new regulations announced on Tuesday, regional administrations – subject to the health minister’s approval – are allowed to impose controls that include closing schools and workplaces as well as limiting religious activities and gatherings at public places. Civil emergency policies may be considered by the President as a last resort.

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, because of social and economic concerns, while maintaining that it remains the prerogative of the central government to declare a national or territorial one.

Indonesia has more than 1,500 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and over 130 deaths, 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, a visiting fellow with ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, told The Straits Times that a lockdown was a way to enforce social distancing, but it may not be easily implemented in the world’s fourth most populous country with 270 million people.

The government does not have the budget or manpower from the police and military to ensure that people remain in their homes and 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 do not accompany any declaration of a quarantine. If the crisis continues, people who are jobless, homeless and hungry may be forced to loot and riot without financial safety nets, 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 could be considered a loose form of 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$35.3 billion) increase in the state budget to cushion the impact of the coronavirus. A sizeable portion, 110 trillion rupiah, will be used to provide a social security net which includes food assistance, electricity tariff discounts and waivers.

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

Ms Enny said she 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 the economy will recover,” she said.

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

Said Mr Made: “The situation is still calm and under control. If things get worse and this crisis drags on for a couple of months, the situation will change rapidly.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2020, with the headline 'Worries remain in Indonesia despite tighter rules'. Subscribe