With a coronavirus infection rate that has nearly quadrupled since the start of the month, and one of the world’s highest mortality rates, Indonesia’s response to the pandemic has led to doomsday predictions by infectious disease experts, epidemiologists and data handlers abroad.
President Joko Widodo’s original denial of the problem and his current resistance to a blanket lockdown has also sparked a heated debate on social media, with critics posting the hashtag #LockdownOrDie backed by some health experts and politicians.
The president’s actions have also raised speculation that the archipelagic nation of 268 million people is secretly pursuing herd immunity without a vaccine – a solution abandoned by the United Kingdom after it was revealed that millions could perish.
“At this point, we can only foresee a dark ending to our pandemic story,” wrote The Jakarta Post in an expose that examined herd immunity and other potential endings to Indonesia’s coronavirus health emergency.
Much of the information is corroborated by documents already released by the taskforce, the Indonesian Disaster Mitigation Agency and the office of the president, but is compressed and easier to understand. The information also provides insight into the politics and ideology behind the government’s slow and piecemeal response.
“Indonesia is not pursuing a policy of herd immunity. We understand that will not work as we probably do not have immunity to this virus, which means you can catch it again and again,” the source said on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the media.
“Those doomsday predictions are not taking into account everything the Indonesian government is doing to get through this.”
‘Flying a kite’
President Widodo continues to oppose blanket lockdown because he says it would hurt the poor too much in a country where nearly one in 10 people earn less than a dollar a day.
The country currently has 7,135 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 616 people have so far died.
Instead, Widodo has employed a patchwork solution that includes partial lockdowns in COVID-19 hotspots like Jakarta and West Sumatra, while allowing unrestricted movement in places like the Balinese capital Denpasar, where infection rates are seen to be low.
In explaining the government’s approach, the source used an old Indonesian metaphor about the life lessons one can learn from kite flying.
“It’s like flying a kite. You have to know when to hold the rope and when to let it go,” the source said.
“If you don’t put in a lockdown, 10 percent of the population could die from coronavirus. But if you do, people will die of starvation. Indonesia can’t enforce a lockdown for very long, and we know it could be years until a vaccine is developed.
“So instead we are doing what Vietnam, Japan and Taiwan are doing. They test as many people as we can and if someone has the virus they trace them. If we can get that system going, we won’t need a lockdown.”
However, the pandemic tallying website Worldometer shows Indonesia has one of the lowest testing rates in the world. Only 184 in every million people in the country have been tested compared with 2,043 for every million in Thailand and 20,629 for every million in Germany.
Indonesia is also suffering from a scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE). At least 12 Indonesian doctors, including the directors of two hospitals, died after contracting COVID-19 at the workplace, while most health workers around the country are using raincoats as medical gowns.