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A cemetery worker walks between graves at a designated graveyard for COVID-19 victims at Pondok Ranggon cemetery in Jakarta. Risa Krisadhi/Pacific Press/Sipa USA

Amid COVID-19, Indonesia should stop prioritising the economy: lessons from other countries

Southeast Asia’s largest economy, Indonesia, has again shown it prioritises the economy over its people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a controversial decision, the Ministry of State-Owned Enterprises has ordered its employees under 45 to resume work on May 25. The ministry announced the decision following a report showing that age group is at much less risk from the disease.

The instruction is part of the government’s plan to relax its lockdown policy, especially for the business sector.

While other countries are careful in their decisions to return everything to normal, Indonesia, which has the highest COVID-19 mortality rate in Southeast Asia, aims to return all economic activities to normal by July.

Prioritising the economy during the pandemic would never work. The US is a good example. Under Donald Trump’s leadership, the US tends to prioritise its economy and it now has the most COVID-19 cases in the world.

The Trump administration seems to ignore a new study by top US university MIT, which, using data from the 1918-1919 flu pandemic in the US, demonstrates that cities that prioritised people’s health over the economy had more economic growth afterwards.

Countries that have received praise for their success in containing the spread of the virus, like Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, also show that the economy should not be a priority.

Indonesia should learn from nations that have managed to contain the virus. They take the virus seriously and make health facilities and workers a priority.

Taking the pandemic seriously

While countries like Indonesia and the US at first downplayed the gravity of the virus, and even made jokes about it, other countries such as Vietnam and Singapore quickly warned about the danger and imposed strict rules to protect their people.

They understand that COVID-19 brings huge health risks and that they must act immediately.

Vietnam, for example, as early as late January imposed a strict lockdown while providing the poor and businesses with economic incentives.

China, where COVID-19 first emerged during Chinese New Year celebrations, also enacted a lockdown policy. It suspended all transportation systems. While residents were forbidden to leave their homes, neighbourhood committees delivered daily necessities to people’s homes.

These governments, rather than waiting for the virus to become precarious, recognised the COVID-19 pandemic as a serious threat and took quick and serious steps to overcome the outbreak.

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s lack of seriousness in responding to COVID-19 is apparent from the early days of the pandemic. The government has instead given priority to dealing with the economic impacts.

In February, when other countries started to ban travel, Indonesia did the opposite by offering US$7 million to fund the promotion of tourism, which it feared would be affected by COVID-19.

Such policies not only show the government’s priorities were wrong but also that it failed to realise the seriousness of the virus.

Putting health care first

Another lesson is to prioritise health care and the safety of health workers on the front line of the battle.

In Taiwan and South Korea, for example, the governments provided free coronavirus tests and increased the number of testing centres, including drive-through centres and even phone-booth testing. This speaks to the country’s early preparedness.

These countries also spent their cash on contact tracing to track potential carriers and disclose their travel histories, which helped to contain infection clusters.

Beyond providing facilities, these governments took care of their health workers.

The triage system, which is used to determine which kinds and places of treatment take priority, was implemented. Hospitals and major medical facilities also limited the size of work units to protect health workers and other patients from being infected.

In Vietnam, retired doctors and nurses have been called to assist if needed. Four hundred infectious disease specialists have been asked to train other doctors in how to treat COVID-19 patients.

In these countries, health workers received a pay increase. Additional funds were also available for health facilities to pay bonuses to emergency room personnel, including medical, administrative, ambulance, cleaning staff and social workers.

Compared to these countries, Indonesia does not have appropriate health services and protection for health workers.

Its testing policies have been heavily criticised. Scientists have debunked its claim that the curve was flattening. Limited protection has been given to health workers, many of whom died with no precise data available on how many.

Most of Indonesia’s policies centre on how to resume business operations as soon as possible.

Recommendation for Indonesia

Indonesia needs to learn from other countries and formulate policies that are right on target and right on priority.

The first step, which the government should have taken a long time ago, is to realise the seriousness of the issue and that acting to save the economy first will not help at all.

The government should also pay more attention to the country’s health workers who have been on the front line.

These two steps should be accompanied by conducting wider COVID-19 testing, refining the data and creating a standard curve, so the government can adjust its policies to current reality.

Dikanaya Tarahita, an Indonesian journalist, co-authored this article

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