The handling of COVID-19 has exposed the weakness of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) leadership in Indonesia. His ad hockery[i] style of leadership is dubbed to be lacking in strategic thinking that is essential in the time of crisis.[ii] Among many issues on pandemic management, one of the most crucial is the transparency of data and information. The Indonesian government is not only failed to provide transparent data, but might even actively misinformed its citizens. These actions further escalate the damage caused by COVID-19 in Indonesia.
Downplaying the threat
The way the Indonesian government undermines the threat of COVID-19 has been apparent from early on. Back in January, when neighboring countries such as Singapore or Malaysia initiated preparation for the outbreak, Indonesian public officials downplayed the threat of COVID-19. Terawan, Minister of Health, stated that COVID-19 is not more lethal than the flu virus.[iii] The lack of concern from the minister is not his personal position; rather it was in tune with sentiment demonstrated by President Jokowi himself. In February, instead of carefully planning to anticipate the pandemic, Jokowi decided to promote tourism in Indonesia.[iv] It was followed up with Ministry of Tourism that had spend 72 billion rupiahs to social media influencers to raise interest in tourism.[v]
Even after the first COVID-19 patients are officially declared, the Indonesian government is still far from formulating the necessary response needed to curb the impact of this pandemic. Until the writing of this article, the government opted to implement PSBB (Large Scale Social Restriction). While the policies formally restrict the movement of many citizens, it is not lockdown option that as suggested by many health experts[vi], to be the best option available to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Moreover, with PSBB, the local government is expected to apply for permit from the Ministry of Health with bureaucratic requirements that might delay the comprehensive implementation of the policy. Therefore, there is no telling whether PSBB would actually help to flatten the number[vii] of COVID-19 patients in Indonesia.
Data transparency and misinformation
One crucial reason for this problematic pandemic management related to the lack of data transparency and active misinformation about the nature of this pandemic. In early February, Harvard epidemiologist has reminded the Indonesian government on the possibilities that Indonesia already had undetected positive cases of COVID-19.[viii] In response, Terawan dismissed the suggestion as an insult for the Indonesians’ ability to detect the virus.[ix] His statement represents the stance taken by Indonesian public officials regarding any information related to COVID-19.
The government has been trying to portray that COVID-19 issue is a normal situation that largely manageable. The key to maintain this perception is deliberate efforts from the government to filter the information allowed to be presented to the public. In their earlier position, the government has decided not to disclose all data related to the spread COVID-19. President Jokowi justified this choice with the consideration that he does not want COVID-19 information to cause panic in society.[x]
This statement from the president is well translated into the kind of information presented by the Ministry of Health. Until recently, the Ministry of Health only disclosed the number of new cases, hospitalized, recovered, and deceased patients. At the same time, Indonesian citizens did not have access on the number of medical test performed per day, ODP (people under surveillance), or PDP (patients suspected to be infected). The lack of transparency deceptively creates the perception that COVID-19 cases in Indonesia are not that threatening. The absence of reliable data is even worsened with the way Indonesian officials are able to misinformed citizens regarding the situation. In one of the early cases of this virus, the spokesperson of Indonesian COVID-19 taskforce, caught lied in public regarding the status of one patient.[xi] While earlier this choice of secrecy was seemingly able to maintain public wariness, it backfired since the lack of reliable data becomes an obstacle for any effort to formulate effective policies.
This issue of data transparency is also raised by several heads of local regions. Ridwan Kamil stated that the actual cases of COVID-19 in Indonesia is most likely much larger than the official data, yet there were not many tests performed to verify it.[xii] Sultan HB X, Governor of Yogyakarta, also criticized the government for not transparent enough on the spread area of COVID-19.[xiii] For these heads of local regions, the concern is real. They need to anticipate the migration of many workers from Jakarta who would like to return to their hometown since businesses are already closed.
Amidst the pressure for data transparency, Jokowi has instructed to open more data related to COVID-19 in Indonesia.[xiv] However, this is still far from reliable in comparison to other democratic countries like the one practiced in South Korea.[xv] Moreover, despite the claim of openness, the Indonesian government also recently produced repressive regulation that could criminalized citizen accused to spread ‘false information’ or ‘insults’ public officials that handles COVID-19.[xvi] Rather than representing the idea of transparency, this kind of regulation affirms the suspicion of many that Jokowi’s policy is paving the way to authoritarian politics.[xvii] Even prior to the pandemic, Indonesian society has been experiencing problems with misinformation.[xviii] However, in this particular time of unprecedented crisis, the stake is much higher since misinformation could easily result in more death tolls of Indonesian citizens. (Ibnu Nadzir Daraini)
[viii] See Salazar, P. M., Niehus, R., Taylor, A., Buckee, C., & Lipsitch, M. (2020). Using predicted imports of 2019-nCoV cases to determine locations that may not be identifying all imported cases. Boston: Harvard University
[xv] See Jeong, G. H., Lee, H. J., Lee, K. H., Han, Y. J., Yoon, S., Lee, J., & Ryu, S. (2020). Epidemiology and Important Lessons from the Coronavirus Disease 2019 ( COVID-19 ) Outbreak in South Korea. Seoul: Yonsei University