Vaccination drive poses big test of Indonesia's state capacity

The ambitious campaign, starting amid a spike in Covid-19 cases, is pivotal but cannot give the weak economy a quick boost.

A medical health worker in Denpasar, Bali, receiving a Covid-19 jab on Jan 14, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

In the battle against Covid-19, there is welcome news from Indonesia, as a massive vaccination campaign has started. But this will not be the silver bullet some hope for, and it is unlikely to give the pandemic-battered economy a quick shot in the arm.

For sure, the campaign will be a big test of the state's administrative capacity, and there are doubts about how well it will go.

The campaign is getting under way just as Covid-19 cases and deaths in the world's fourth most populous country have been spiking. By the official tally, cases as at Wednesday were 858,043 and deaths were 24,951 - one-third more than a month earlier.

Questions about how well the campaign will go are natural, given logistical challenges and uncertainty about how many citizens will shun the free inoculation.

The logistical challenges are daunting, given Indonesia's thousands of islands and the need to rely on patchy transport and infrastructure on many of them to deliver vaccines that must be kept cold.

Also, the caseload could spike for some time, fuelled by domestic year-end travel and lack of social distancing. Bali had its worst day on Tuesday, with 350 new cases reported. Nationwide, deaths reported on Wednesday were a single-day record 306.

Indonesia, basically, is placing its hopes for corralling Covid-19 on vaccination.

The government has shied away from full lockdowns of cities, instead having partial ones in the hope of limiting economic damage, and testing has been inadequate.

Relying on vaccination "is the government's strategy to give a sense of security", says Mr Made Supriatma, a social scientist and visiting fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Ambitious but problematic

Indonesia's vaccination campaign is ambitious: The aim is to inoculate 181.5 million people, or nearly two-thirds of the population of the sprawling archipelago, by March next year.

President Joko Widodo, who received the first injection on national television on Wednesday, has expressed hope that the health authorities can complete the job in just one year, which is very unlikely.

Many Indonesians were relieved when Jokowi, as the President is known, last month removed his health minister Terawan Agus Putranto, a doctor who initially said Covid-19 was beatable through prayer, and who was clearly out of his depth.

The President then appointed Mr Budi Gunadi Sadikin, a banker with a strong management background, as Health Minister.

The new minister has been visible and communicative, unlike his predecessor. He faces huge challenges, as Covid-19 has shown the woeful state of the public health system. Hundreds of medical personnel, many of whom lacked proper protective equipment, have died during the pandemic.

And the vaccination campaign needs a real manager: Indonesia began with only three million doses of the Chinese manufacturer Sinovac Biotech's vaccine, CoronaVac, though the government said that hundreds of millions more doses have been secured from multiple manufacturers. Sinovac trials in Indonesia showed 65.3 per cent efficacy, but the vaccine was found to be 50.4 per cent effective in clinical trials in Brazil.

Troubled economy

Mr Joko, re-elected with a solid margin in 2019, had expected last year to bring solid economic growth. Instead, Covid-19 brought Indonesia's first recession since the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, pushing millions into poverty.

The year also brought nationwide protests following the passage of an "omnibus" law designed to attract investors who had given Indonesia a wide berth because of corruption, an inadequate skill base and onerous regulation. The protests were rooted in provisions seen as hurting labour and reducing environmental safeguards for projects.

The President pushed the omnibus law in a bid to help Indonesia get investments that were going to other South-east Asian nations, particularly Vietnam.

The law, the centrepiece of his legislative agenda, should eventually draw some investors, but not just yet, partly because Indonesia's pre-vaccination record on fighting Covid-19 is weak, compared with Vietnam's.

Vietnam is one of the few countries whose economies grew last year.

And illustrating how corruption remains a serious problem for Indonesia, two ministers were arrested late last year for alleged graft. One of them, then Social Affairs Minister Juliari Batubara, allegedly stole money from government aid for Indonesians impoverished by the pandemic.

The President, whose second and final five-year term ends in 2024, has remained popular despite the government's initial stumbles in combating Covid-19, with his approval ratings at around 60 per cent in many polls.

His legacy will in part be determined by how the vaccination campaign goes, and how soon the Indonesian economy can grow better than the 5 per cent seen in years preceding the calamitous 2020.

There should be growth this year, compared with an expected 2 per cent contraction last year. But this year's number could be anaemic, depending on the Covid-19 situation, while Indonesia needs growth of more than 5 per cent to reduce high levels of unemployment and underemployment.

A big factor in how the vaccination campaign unfolds will be the performance of the civil service. Encouragingly, Indonesia has a network of local health posts in rural areas that have carried out the inoculation of infants for decades. But historically, the civil service has not inspired confidence, as there has generally been low productivity, overstaffing and high resistance to reform.

Social scientist Yanuar Nugroho, who was deputy chief of staff during the President's first term, said Covid-19 is "a wake-up call for the Indonesian government to strengthen and improve its state capacity".

Mr Yanuar, who said the civil service needs "a new culture of discipline and accountability", is not confident the call will be answered.

"It will be challenging, if not impossible, to build state capacity," he said in a Jan 7 webinar on Indonesia's 2021 outlook.

• Richard Borsuk, who has co-authored a book on Indonesia, has worked as a journalist in Asia for decades. He is now with Researching Southeast Asia, a consultancy, and is an adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.