Indonesia’s open-door lockdown

Four years ago Oxfam published research showing the four richest men in Indonesia own as much wealth as the country’s poorest 100 million citizens.

The statistic is so disturbing it had to be rechecked, particularly as President Joko Widodo continually claims he’s fighting inequality. But so far there’s been no credible challenge to the development charity’s calculations.

Also, no show of government resolve to tackle a divide so wide reduction seems impossible without determined leadership backed by a surge of altruism from the oligarchy. Right now this looks unlikely.

The situation has worsened since the pandemic hit last year. The Badan Pusat Statistik (BPS – Central Statistics Agency) latest release shows almost ten million unemployed. Uncounted are the millions of casuals and self-employed sole traders whose takings have been slashed by the plague.

“Indonesia could become the epicentre of the pandemic, but it’s already the epicentre of Asia,” said Dicky Budiman, an Indonesian epidemiologist at Griffith University. He’s been predicting numbers will double in the next few weeks.

“If you look at the population difference between India and Indonesia…then the pandemic is far more serious than in India.”

The top end of town also reports tumbling takings. Last year Southeast Asia’s biggest economy was thumped by its first recession since the 1998 Asian financial crisis; 2021 first-quarter data from the BPS confirms the downhill trend.

Frontline women: unrecognised leadership in Indonesia’s COVID-19 response

Incorporating women's experiences and skills would improve pandemic responses.

After flip-flopping on saving commerce or citizens, Widodo ordered a 17-day lockdown across Java and Bali ending on 20 July. This may be extended to 3 August. Implementation has been hit and miss—mostly the latter.

Sutiaji, the Mayor of Malang in East Java, told local media he won’t follow the president’s edict, though more than 300 cases were found in his city on one day last week. There are testing stations, but the fee of Rp 200,000, the equivalent of two days work for a casual labourer and three for a household maid, is a hefty deterrent, corrupting official figures.

Immunisation is patchy with clinics mainly using the Chinese Sinovac, plus some Astra Zeneca.  Reuters reports about ten per cent of the population (273 million) has had two jabs.

In the absence of any peer-reviewed academic surveys on the effectiveness of the lockdown, personal observations will have to suffice. The snapshots come from Malang, population 900,000, the second biggest metropolis in the province. All are first hand.

A dozen black-uniformed satpol (unarmed local government security) arrived at a packed street produce market at 6 am after it had been running for an hour, ordering around 100 vendors to gather their wares and go.

They shouted back that if they couldn’t sell they’d starve. The outnumbered and sympathetic satpol gave up, not even bothering to warn scores of unmasked customers to cover up as mandated or enforce social distancing.

Eateries are take-away only, unless diners say they’re weary. Then a back room can be found for sit-down meals. One warung (permanent food stall) at the entrance to a central city gang (lane) doesn’t even bother with subterfuge. Customers use tables in clear view of pedestrians, though not patrol cars, so no worries

Virtue signalling is rampant. A story of a transport business helping people in isolation was dominated by photos of the company’s bus fleet and staff. Others are using the same tactic to get their logos on the news pages.

Hawkers bike around the suburbs flogging foods and household knick-knacks though other goods are on offer. Buyers are cautious, slowing the hand-to-mouth pedlars’ cash flows to a trickle.

Sutedjo, 55, offers gemstones set in clunky rings much admired by men with big egos and little else. He pushes his last century cycle around the nooks and crannies of the ancient hilltown, accompanied by his wife Kartini, 43, and two of their three children, surviving on handouts. “Before Covid 19 I could sell five rings a day,” he said. “Now I’d be lucky to sell one. Few have money.”

The family is untroubled by police who are rarely seen. Kartini said she and her husband are too frightened to be immunised and claim no one has tried to persuade them that the disease is serious and protection free. Government advertising has generals and politicians in uniforms sagging with medals above captions urging the populace to stay indoors. Some do—most don’t.

The posters also urge people to exercise—impossible in tiny rooms in cramped houses. The few public parks have been closed, but those determined to follow the recommendation and shake their limbs have pulled down fences. The gaps remain.

Sellers of jamu (traditional herbal potions) are among the few street criers doing good business having expanded their cure-alls from colds to COVID.

Orders to shut mosques and churches lasted but a day before pressure from clerics forced the government to reverse its decision.

Kartini said her family hadn’t received any aid from their mosque or the government and couldn’t explain why. Her response would puzzle individualist Australians used to a welfare system where the needy expect state support and are quick to assert their rights.

Traditional Javanese believe life is predestined, so what’s the point of trying to make a difference?   Muhammadiyah University psychology lecturers Diah Karmiyati and Sofa Amalia have written of the principle of nrima (acceptance of the existing situation). These values make it easier for authorities to do what they like—and that includes politicians.

Jakarta trumpets that its Program Sembako (essential foods) project—which includes a cash payment of Rp 200,000 a month (AUD 18.50)—has reached about 20 million households. Not all parcels have arrived intact.

Late last year social affairs minister Juliari Batubara was charged by the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (Corruption Eradication Commission) with taking bribes totalling Rp 14.5 billion (AUD 1.4 million). The KPK reported Batubara and two others took a ‘commission’ of Rp 10,000 from suppliers for each Rp 300,000 sembako pack destined for the needy.

Along with the ineffectual lockdown the widely reported graft has fomented outrage and eroded trust in the government’s ability to handle the pandemic and keep its people safe.

Psychologist and civil rights activist Alissa Wahid, eldest daughter of Indonesia’s fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid, aka Gus Dur, has been running an online petition urging leaders to lift their game. Her slogan: “Without integrity, no one listens; without trust, no one follows.”

More on Indonesia

Indonesian gig workers: the quest for labour-protection

Legislative change and consumer consciousness are key to protecting gig-workers from digital exploitation.

Environmental degradation in Indonesia: lessons from Jambi

Native oligarchs and unscrupulous security apparatuses from the police to the military continue to exploit natural resources with ease and impunity.

The price for neutrality is reform and preparedness

The current version of ASEAN is inadequate to implement a robust neutrality enforcement policy that follows a “strong neutrality” and “cohesive neutrality” principle.