Sometimes I wish my thoughts would just write itself. There is just so much swirling around in my head that it paralyzes me, making me feel as if I don’t have the necessary tools, time and space at my disposal to make sure that they are conveyed properly. It’s a mash-up of laziness and insecurity; a part of me yearns to take it easy (but I can’t) and the other feels like what I have to say won’t matter anyway.
Yet a smaller part of me often nudges, telling me to use this momentum with courage and determination, that to let these thoughts cornered inside my own mind would be a mistake. And that is why I am on this page at the moment.
People are longing for a return to normalcy. I see it on my Twitter timeline, all over Facebook and on Instagram stories. Friends bring it up when we chat or while we’re doing video calls, and I’ve read articles and essays expressing similar sentiments. Many of us — the lucky ones, I should say — may be staying at home and safe for the most part, but even so there’s this great, collective discomfort in the air, derived from all the uncertainties of our present. What would the world look like after COVID-19?
You may not have realized this, but we’ve passed the 100-day mark in 2020. The reality of this pandemic may have only hit us at a truly global level in February or March, but in truth the novel coronavirus began its proliferation in late 2019, when doctors in China first detected a “pneumonia of unknown cause,” which later became known as COVID-19. To date (April 12, 2020), there are more than 1.7 million confirmed cases globally, with nearly 109,000 deaths and over 404,000 recoveries.
The word “unprecedented” has been exhausted to describe the outbreak. To an extent, the word does make for an apt description of this extraordinary happening. Yet we risk losing valuable perspectives in using it to offer an explanation of the crisis we are facing — one that none of us could have prevented, but one that those who are in the know and in charge could have mitigated much, much better.
COVID-19 cracked open our entire world, unveiling the truth that many of us chose — or at least had the privilege to — ignore. It exposes how much we buried underneath the surface, the severe impacts of the mistakes we have made and forces us to reckon with the fragile systems we have entrusted for far too long; all in the name of the status quo.
In January, cases of the novel coronavirus began to rise in China. In the same month, Thailand reported its first case, and official confirmation of human-to-human transmission was announced. By the end of January, the virus has made its way to Europe and Wuhan was put on a lockdown. On Jan. 31, China confirmed 9,720 countries, while 19 other countries confirmed a total of 106 cases. The rest of the world, at that point, still carried on like normal.
After all, how could we have known? This is not the first time that the world has to deal with a coronavirus-related disease. I am not an expert by any means, but even from those early days I’d wondered how the risks associated with the novel coronavirus had been assessed. The experiences with SARS (2002) and MERS (2012), did that create an illusion of an ability to handle something similar? When world leaders tell the public “they have it under control” in those early days and said we shouldn’t be concerned at all, were they guided by scientifically sound information or blindsided by other priorities? We have learned by now that epidemiologists have long warned of an impending pandemic, so why is it that most governments don’t (seem to) have a contingency plan?
So far, the countries which appear to have a better handling of the public health crisis are those which had been devastated by SARS: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and yes, China. This is pretty easy to digest, as their previous experiences prepared them to tackle on the possibility of another crisis head on and much more robustly.
In China’s case, the measures appear extreme at first. The lockdown of a city inhabited by more than 11 million people gave way to ethical concerns and the steps taken were almost immediately labeled as “draconian.” More than two months later, the same description is used for the step that has since been taken by other countries in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Evidently, we do not have a foolproof guidebook on how to handle pandemics. Many countries are learning as they go; stuttering and stumbling in the process. The value of leadership becomes ever more important, precautions are not alarming but rather comforting and extraordinary yet careful measures feel like they would make a great difference, even though we have yet to reach a point of evaluation.
It was reassuring to see Germany’s Angela Merkel lay out the probability (two-thirds of world population infected), encouraging to see New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern succinctly explain her country’s COVID-19 alert levels and what is expected of the people and what the people can expect from her government (in terms of support), sobering to see Singapore’s ministers responsible responses to this viral disease and the threat it pos for the public and simply fascinating to witness Taiwan and South Korea acting so swiftly. Every government is not without its flaws, but these examples showcase stark differences in those that at least have the people’s interest first and foremost, and their citizens may just reap the benefits in the not-too-distant future.
On the other side of that are countries which underestimated the situation, downplayed the risks and failed to take necessary precautions, mistakes of which are perhaps most apparent in their number of cases today — as is the current reality for countries topping the list of confirmed cases, such as the United States (529,951) and Italy (152,271).
Our knowledge about the virus and the best ways to handle it continues to develop with each passing day, and even our common understanding requires constant guidance from the latest studies and news reports.
In the early weeks of COVID-19, when panic buying led to hoarding of medical masks by members of the public, the official advisory from the World Health Organization (WHO) informs us that there is no need for us to wear masks unless we are sick. A couple of weeks later, countries with evidently lower rates of infections seem to be the ones whose citizens were regularly wearing masks. It didn’t seem coincidental and officials across the globe have now began to shift their ‘masks won’t work’ stance to suggestions that we ought to use cloth masks and cover our faces, while stressing the importance of ensuring medical masks are always available for healthcare workers.
In the beginning of the outbreak, when it seemed like it was the elderly who was most at risk of dying from the virus, it somehow created this bizarre “myth” that the young ought not to worry. But now we know that it could affect just about anyone, even those of us who lived a healthy lifestyle and have no underlying health conditions. There was also a misunderstanding, perpetuated by some officials, that COVID-19 is not more dangerous than the common flu. But we’ve since learned that this is more like pneumonia than the common flu, that some who have recovered from the illness have partially reduced lung function, and that those who are fighting the disease have reported severe difficulty in breathing and dealing with debilitating pain. More recently, emerging studies suggest that areas with high rates of pollution are reporting higher death rates, which could mean that those places would need to have better preparation and assume much worse.
What fascinates and baffles me simultaneously, perhaps, is how we as a society reacted to what we are now experiencing together but apart. The way panic, understandably, crept in and take hold in different ways, the privileges of working from home that only some of us can afford, the way some of our leaders failed — and are still failing — to make the right moves for millions of people, the way we are processing this happening and our takeaways on what this means for our collective future.
For some split seconds of heartlessness, it seems that we are getting to a point where confirmed cases, deaths and recoveries, feel like random numbers that just continue to grow exponentially, seemingly with a lurking threat that it will haunt us for a very long time. One bad news on top of another, yet we can’t help but alert ourselves to all the latest updates because keeping ourselves in the dark just seems reckless and unwise. That phantom sense of life pausing is a lie that we cannot shake away, but underneath it all are lives that have been dramatically, suddenly transformed; and this reminds me of what it’s like to grieve. We are suffering great losses, some quantifiable and some less so, but we are all grieving, indeed.
This is the part where I talk about the pandemic situation in Indonesia, where I am from and currently live. Here, we are witnessing a lack of a firm hand and gross incompetence that have already cost us preventable deaths. When you look at the numbers (less than 4,000 confirmed cases as of 11 April), we may seem better off than other parts of the world; but my fellow Indonesians and I have too much backing our grave concerns, things that have made us restless for weeks.
This is also the part where I mention a little about my work as a journalist, how my perspectives and analysis about what is going on — both in Indonesia and the world — is informed by the reporting work I do on the daily, and the information I gather in that process (and also in my free time, let’s be honest). It’s always been important for me to learn multiple perspectives on any issue and I’ve kept a close watch on COVID-19 developments for the past three months. Needless to say, I am buried deep in information.
Forgive me, Americans — but I think most people could see that you have a true buffoon of a president at the moment. In Indonesia, our buffoon comes with a little more complexity; one must look a little harder to see beyond the facade.
In the early days of the outbreak, when the government had ample time to face facts and prepare our country for the worst, officials decided that they should largely focus on the economy. Nevermind that timely handling of the coronavirus, as exemplified by countries which seem to have it under some kind of control now, is one of the key aspects of addressing this crisis.
Official data may not suggest that we are facing great difficulties, at least comparatively, but that is a convenient illusion. From the start, there was very little transparency, unbelievably poor coordination between central and provincial governments, as well as an awful lot of missteps that has shown us how this administration is filled with fools who cared more about the economy than the people, perhaps forgetting an essential fact: the economy cannot exist without a healthy population.
Our hospitals and medical workers were not prepared, even when the government had at least one month to bulk up and establish a strategy should and when we need it. When the first two domestic cases were confirmed, we got to see how poorly prepared our officials were. The patients learned about their COVID-19 positive result by watching the President on television and had their private information leak to the public. The government then responded to the criticisms that followed by providing little information in their updates, with the President later admitting that they have withheld some information to prevent panic among the public. The lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) are endangering the lives of those on the frontlines, and we have lost at least 18 doctors so far.
Indonesia have bluntly refused the option of a lockdown (at least for the time being), arguing that each country is with their own characters and the chosen option must be fitting of its citizens. That’s bullcrap, a strategy so befitting of their colossal incompetence.
What we have in Indonesia right now is something called Large-Scale Social Restrictions (PSBB), a newly issued regulation that took precious days to be properly issued. PSBB is perceived as an attempt to avoid having to use the existing 2018 Law on Health Quarantines, which would guarantee necessary provisions for every citizen. Instead, PSBB involves avoidable bureaucratic process that unnecessarily emphasize the central government’s rule over the rest of the country. It is not much of a difference to what many cities in Indonesia have already been doing, at the suggestion of our local governments, for the past few weeks.
Indonesia is playing catch-up, when it could very much take charge in a harrowing situation that has taken over the world. It moves at a snail pace, unable to act firmly for the benefit of the people, and is overly concerned with other matters that are so glaringly obvious that it is further sickening this nation.
Let us, for a moment, simplify the argument and consider the economy very important, just to be on the same page as them. Have these people actually considered what Indonesia would do and how would it survive with a sick population for a disease that has yet to find a cure or vaccine? It is hard to believe that they are not, yet again, underestimating COVID-19. Perhaps they are still buying the myth that our tropical weather and millions of prayers are shielding us from this viral disease?
What our officials are doing is simply prolonging the inevitable, and instead of making the right decisions promptly; they are attempting to safeguard their own interests in the name of the people. COVID-19 is a great disruption that requires an extraordinary response, and the central government has yet to show that they are doing anything meaningful to actually protect and serve the people. It has instead chosen a complex route that doesn’t appear to benefit those who need it the most, with the most vulnerable members of our population suffering greatly from the changes that are taking place, as our country forces the economic engine to continue running at the expense of our national health.
We are seeing provincial leaders rising to the occasion, thankfully. Some have shown more leadership, acting quickly even within the limits imposed by the central government. It gives me hope, even just a little bit, at a time when we seem to be running on zero.
The nightmare isn’t over, because our approach to the actual virus can be said to be very minimal, too. Our relatively low number of confirmed cases? That’s only because we’re testing a very small portion of our population. As of April 9, the Indonesian Health Ministry have only conducted less than 17,000 tests. We are the fourth-most populous country in the world, and how is it that we seem satisfied with the no-progress we have made, nevermind the fact that studies upon studies are predicting that our real number of cases are much, much higher. If you don’t do the tests, you don’t have to deal with the reality; reinforcing an illusion that all our government has done is reasonable enough.
I am gripped with a new kind of fear recently. My longing for something more optimistic is giving space for delusions and I am on the brink of believing everything this administration is selling and leave it at that; they have concocted this clueless and ignorant scenario and somehow it is easier to believe what they are saying that facing the disturbing facts. I have grown desperate.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, of course, and everything that the Indonesian government does also reflect a darkness in our nation’s character. To put it (perhaps too) simply: we have, for much too long, accepted our corrupt leaders, demanded less than we deserve, taking our democratic rights for granted because challenging the status quo takes far too long and is often too complex, and now we are suffering the consequences of our inaction.
This is not an easy assessment to make, but please also note that it is not a conclusion. This is certainly not to say that Indonesia deserves to be — for a lack of better phrase — at the mercy of our inept officials and representatives. It is merely a window to what has always been a convoluted matter in this country, one that sadly continues to reenergize itself when we choose to ignore, rather than act. Perhaps what makes this pandemic all a little harder to bear, as much of a slap in the face as it is, is because just less than six months ago, the country just witnessed movements rising to the streets to demand our government to be better, declaring that our country’s reformasi (reformation) has been corrupted in what could have paved the way for the power to truly return to the people. For the time being, however, that momentum feels like it’s grinding to a halt, like much of the world right now.
But is it? Perhaps not.
We have simply moved from the streets to social media, our voices in characters, and our banners in the form of tweets. For citizens whose governments have terribly failed them in this pandemic, none of us will forget. We will remember, and when it’s time to return to the streets; I’d like to imagine that that’s exactly what we are all going to be doing.
A few nights ago, my frustration reached a boiling point. It was nothing dramatic, but perhaps significant enough for my mom to notice that she told me I should get off the internet and forget about our stupid government.
I worry too much, even when there’s very little I could do. You suddenly feel very small, insignificant in a million different ways.
I have a roof over my head and I have meager savings to keep me afloat. I am with my family and I have food to sustain me. I have a job. But so many people can’t say the same as they live amid this great, big uncertainty; the days stretching with more difficulties than ease with a government that seems to have very little context of how lives are being affected. Yet I don’t have enough on my disposal to help them all, and it corners me into great despair. But even in my anguish I cannot forget that I am much better off than so many people and should complain a little less, and then: what does it matter if I feel insignificant anyway?
It’s a back and forth that sees to no end, and so I write. I write because this is my sanctuary, I write because I need to remember what this experience is like in the days, weeks, months and years to come. I write because I might need to go back to this one day, because the hardships we are facing today ought not to be forgotten. I will not let those in charge gloss over this period and I will do what I can to make sure that they are held accountable for their severe incompetence. Perhaps people will say that it is a useless fight, for I am an individual with little to no power at my disposal, and for the most part they may be correct. But I am also a writer and words are my superpower. I don’t know how I will use them yet, but they are here for when I need it.
I write because I need to let off some steam. I write because having the words written on a page help create more space within me to deal with the future. Selfishly, I write for my own well-being. But I sure hope it will some day be useful to someone else.
What would the world look like after the coronavirus?
There is no return. We will be arriving in a new world.
One cannot be entirely sure of what that may look like, but we are not entirely clueless either. What is certain is that what we defined as “normal” was festering in filth, and too many of us, myself included, had been complacent.
We are going to be electing leaders, not politicians. We will protect the Earth, because this is our only home. We will invest in the people, not the economy. We will tear down the systems that are failing us. We will be kind, because all we have is each other.
We’ll be hugging. We’ll be kissing. We will love.
Perhaps most importantly of all, we will be together. We will weather this great big storm — yes, with all its unfortunate repercussions– and we will rebuild.