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With economic legacy in mind, Jokowi turns a political blind eye during the pandemic

The pandemic has not been Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s finest hour. Sigid Kurniawan/Antara Foto

Nine months into the pandemic, Indonesia is still in what has been dubbed an “endless first wave”.

As of mid-November, the spread of infection was still high. More than 13% of people tested were returning positive results. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), figures above 5% mean an outbreak is not under control.

In late November, the archipelagic nation passed a grim milestone, confirming a total of more than half-a-million cases since the first cases were announced in early March.

There is much blame to be shared over this dismal affair by the WHO and the government.

The WHO, by minimising the severity of the spread of the virus outside China at the start of the pandemic and overpraising the Indonesian government’s preparation, contributed to complacency.

More damaging, however, is the Indonesian government’s own goal in dealing with the pandemic. The government’s attempts to play down the infectiousness and severity of the virus led people to underestimate the threat.

And the main driver of the government’s actions is its laser-like focus on economic growth.

Economy first

Even a month after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Indonesia, the administration kept playing down the pandemic threat. It wrongly claimed the virus could not survive Indonesia’s high heat and humidity.

As Jokowi admitted in an interview with BBC in February, his administration’s main focus was on the economy.

When asked about the threat of a pandemic, he said his main concern was how it would jeopardise Indonesia’s image as a tourism destination, which would hurt incomes from tourism.

While nations all over the world were issuing travel warnings to prevent COVID-19 spreading into their territories, the administration instead pushed much-derided “Rp 72 billion influencer funds” to promote Indonesia as a tourist destination.

This focus on the economy explained why Jokowi’s administration kept mum about the virus when it started to spread in Indonesia: to prevent people from panicking and, in turn, to prevent the economy from crashing.

And when there were calls for a national lockdown or a unilateral lockdown, especially from Anies Baswedan – the governor of Jakarta who is seen as a standard-bearer of the opposition – the administration attacked the proposal as dangerous and politically motivated.

Home Minister Tito Karnavian rebuked such calls. He declared they could damage the economy and cause public panic, creating more problems.

Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan asked political elites to “grow up” and stop politicising the pandemic. Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law, and Security Mahfud MD said people should not panic since while COVID-19 was dangerous, more people died from influenza, tuberculosis and dengue.

Jokowi further justified his refusal to impose a total lockdown based on economic considerations. He also pointed to Italy and India as examples of how a lockdown could cause social chaos.

And finally, after the pandemic started to spiral out of control, instead of pulling out all stops and imposing a strict national lockdown, Jokowi dithered. He delegated the decision to impose lockdowns on regional heads. Most likely he did this to shield himself from any political fallout from imposing lockdowns.

Instead, he promoted “mini lockdowns,” localised lockdowns that would isolate small areas to prevent larger social disruption.

The problem, however, is that for this kind of lockdown to be effective, it needs to be combined with effective rapid testing and contact tracing, and these are lacking in Indonesia.

Prijo Sidipratomo, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the National Veterans Development University in Jakarta, went so far as to say the government’s policy was effectively a strategy based on “herd immunity”.

By being indecisive, Indonesia ends up with the worst outcome: an uncontrolled domestic outbreak and the first economic recession in 22 years.

It was only in September that Jokowi backtracked and said it was dangerous to put economic recovery ahead of tackling the pandemic.

Read more: 'Nine months and no progress': what went wrong in Indonesia's COVID-19 responses and what can be done

Lack of political will

Essentially, Jokowi administration’s inability to deal with the pandemic effectively boils down to a lack of political will to tackle the issue head-on for fear it could wreck the economy and, with it, his legacy.

Instead, the administration seemed to pin its hopes on the idea that perhaps the pandemic was not as severe as predicted due to the tropical climate of Indonesia, ethnic Malays’ natural immunity to the virus, or the power of prayer.

History is still being written on whether Indonesia’s haphazard approach may be a better choice in light of how Europe, which imposed strict lockdowns, could soon face a third wave. Still, at this point, the pandemic is not Jokowi’s finest hour.

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