A hard lockdown is looming for Indonesia's populous islands of Java and Bali as a new wave of COVID infections tests the country's ability to cope. But as Yanuar Nugroho writes, the government has to first overcome a longstanding hesitancy to adopt drastic measures that could hurt the economy.
On 29 June 2021, there was widespread speculation in the media that Indonesia would soon impose a hard lockdown or emergency restrictions (PPKM Darurat). The news was carried in Singapore’s The Straits Times and national media such as Tempo. Detik even reported that high-level meetings have been conducted to discuss this matter. However, thus far, no further details have been announced, apart from the President’s appointment of Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Panjaitan to lead the implementation of tightened restrictions on Java and Bali. This is perhaps a reflection of the difficult deliberations taking place within the central government.
Indonesia is currently battling its second wave of COVID-19 infections. As of 27 June 2021, the total number of cases has reached 2,115,304, and the total death toll is 57,138. That day also saw the highest number of new daily cases (21,342) and new daily deaths (409). Hospitals have run out of oxygen and beds and have had to place new patients in corridors or tents. Medical workers are exhausted, and some have become casualties. In response, some communities have mobilised to build shelters at village and district levels or on campuses. The situation looks bleak.
Several factors have contributed to this sad state of affairs. The Delta variants from India have been a major contribution to this second wave as they are more infectious. In addition, the ‘mudik’ (returning to hometowns to celebrate the end of Ramadhan) also played a role. Although officially banned, most people did it anyway due to weak enforcement. As a result, infections have spread more widely to the local and household levels.
Another factor is the lack of compliance with public health protocols, exacerbated by the government’s ambiguous messages and policies. On the one hand, the government pushed for stringent social restrictions. On the other, they encouraged economic activities, the opening of up of businesses and promoted schemes such as Work from Bali and Work from Jogja to help revive the local economy. Although the intention was arguably good, the unintended consequence has been profound: the virus has spread wider.
A final factor is the slow rate of vaccination. An additional ten million doses of Sinovac arrived in Indonesia on 20 June 2021, increasing the total stock to 104 million doses. Yet, as of 24 June 2021, only 12.8 million people have been fully inoculated, representing just 7 per cent of the 181.5 million target. President Jokowi has set a target of 1 million vaccinations per day – a significant increase from the current daily rate of around half a million.
Many groups have demanded that the government ‘pull the emergency brake’ to stop the pandemic from spreading and strengthen the healthcare system to avoid collapse. Unfortunately, officials remain reluctant to implement a total lockdown.
Understandably, a lockdown will not be cheap. It requires social safety nets to be put in place: social assistance, cash transfers, and even the provision of staple food to ensure people stay home. For Jakarta alone, it would cost 7 trillion rupiahs (approximately US$483 million) to lock down the whole capital for two weeks. Without support from the central government, it is impossible for Jakarta — and other provinces and cities — to implement a lockdown.
In hindsight, if the government had taken drastic measures last year, circumstances might have been less dire. At that time, President Jokowi said that he was willing to take ‘extraordinary measures’ to curb COVID-19, but short of a ‘lockdown’. This year, he appears to be saying the same thing. His preference had been to simply impose a stricter implementation of the PPKM (restriction on community activities) rather than a hard lockdown.
A lockdown will probably worsen overall economic performance, which has started to improve recently. An increase in government spending, together with improved consumption and better export performance, may have helped lower the growth contraction. The government is anticipating better growth in the second quarter — within the range of 7.1 per cent to 8.3 per cent — which would never have been achievable if a lockdown had been imposed.
But this offers little comfort if the pandemic continues to drag on. Before the pandemic, the poverty rate was 9.8 per cent in 2018 and 9.41 per cent in 2019, but in 2020, it soared to 10.2 per cent. The unemployment rate has also worsened from 5.3 per cent (2018–2019) to 7.1 per cent last year.
The government also has to consider the political ramifications of a lockdown. Implementing a lockdown now would require a huge state budget, creating a budget deficit that could well exceed the ceiling approved by the parliament. If this happens, the President risks impeachment. The government could, of course, request the parliament to raise this ceiling and by doing so ‘throw the ball’ into the parliament’s court. It would not be an easy decision for the parliamentarians. Perhaps only a tiny fraction of the parliament would be in favour of supporting lockdown to show off their sensibility, but others may not want to risk their own — and the President’s — popular support.
While the politicians in the parliament may not want to make difficult decisions, neither do the ministers aspiring for a ticket in the 2024 presidential election, several of whom currently hold key positions in pandemic response and economic recovery. They would not want to shoulder the political risks associated with a lockdown that could turn sour. Evidently, no one is really thinking about how to resolve the COVID-19 crisis due to their political interests. Yet, if the government does not act decisively and this second wave worsens, it could put them in a much worse political predicament.
Although difficult, Jokowi’s administration has to act now. With power comes the responsibility of making tough decisions.
Dr Yanuar Nugroho is a Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute. He was the former Deputy Chief of Staff to the President of Indonesia 2015-2019. He is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Manchester, UK; senior advisor for Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance (CIPG) Indonesia; and a member of Indonesian Young Academy of Sciences (ALMI).
Banner image: Indonesian President Joko Widodo inspects construction on the Galang COVID-19 Hospital, Batam, Indonesia - April 7, 2020.
This article originally appeared on the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute's online journal Fulcrum on June 30, 2021.