Indonesia, please get your shit together

It’s Sunday. From what I’ve seen, life appears to be normal around here. People are still going about their daily activities and even with a few banners on COVID-19 suggesting people should stay at home, parking lots are still swarming with cars and motorbikes. I was out for a bit this past week to restock some supplies, and even with the precautions I am taking (masks, hand sanitizers, alcohol wipes, safe distances from others), I still feel so exposed. That’s the thing about viruses; the fact that you can’t see them is what makes it so threatening.

The Indonesian government had, at the very least, one month to prepare the whole country for the novel coronavirus outbreak, but it’s evident now that officials never took the threat seriously in the initial stages of what is now a pandemic; and when it’s inevitably reached our shores, the very people who are supposed to lead our countries are still scrambling to handle the issue.

Let’s be fair and firstly point out that Indonesia is not the only country butchering its approach to COVID-19, though it’s quite likely to be among the worst. The level of incompetency is shocking, downright concerning and it’s something all of us ought to not let slide, once we get through this hurricane of a crisis.

How things unfolded in China by the end of January and the fact that the World Health Organization declared this a global health emergency then, should have been indication enough for the government to prepare for what’s to come. Officials, however, were much too focused on the economy. In terms of tourism, for example, efforts were laser-focused on how Indonesia could somehow turn itself into an attractive destination for world travelers amid the crisis, because it had no cases to report on those early days. When they should have prepared our healthcare system and workers, working on streamlining flow of information and laying out the necessary foundation for us to survive this extraordinary situation… they were laying the groundwork for something that could never be justified and foolishly thinking that we were somehow going to be able to come out of this situation unscathed.

I work in the media industry, which means I’d been paying attention to what was unfolding in different parts of the world. Even a month ago, it already appeared to be the beginning of a global crisis, so it’s baffling to contrast that to what Indonesian officials had been up to until the first two domestic cases were confirmed.

In January, we knew enough about human-to-human transmission to be cautious. Couple that with the fact that there’s a relatively easy flow of movement in our world today, which adds to the possibility that people are very much capable of carrying this disease to different parts of the world. Not to mention that we have great travel links with China, the country where the first epicenter of the virus was located. Granted, those early days didn’t mention much about asymptomatic cases; but we quickly learned about the 14-day incubation period, and this feels like more than adequate amount of information to inform any government of the dangers that is ahead, how this is playing out globally, and how travels will increasingly be restricted around the world. Towards the end of February, there was an even clearer glimpse of the global situation and its likely impact to the country — so why the heck did our government roll out an economic incentive instead of duly informing the public about the worldwide situation? President Joko Widodo’s current administration seems to operate in ad-hoc mode instead of being proactive, and that didn’t work out in the people’s best interest when it comes to a public health crisis.

By Sunday, Indonesia has confirmed 514 cases and recorded 48 deaths — giving us about 9.3 percent mortality rate. Unfortunately, this likely means we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg, which makes it even more crucial than ever to proactively slow down the infection rate before it permeates every inch of the archipelago. According to health experts, the government’s slow response that masked the scale of this epidemic means Indonesia are likely to face a large surge of coronavirus cases.

Despite calls to “stay at home” from the President himself, people are still not taking things seriously enough. Many companies did not immediately grant their employees permission to work from home and plenty of other workers simply do not have the option to do so because of the nature of their jobs (e.g: Gojek/Grab drivers, shopkeepers, market sellers). People are refusing to heed suggestions of avoiding public gatherings, perhaps unable to truly comprehend how infectious this disease is and how it easily spreads from one person to another. Too many of us are not even taking the necessary precautions while we are out, because it’s much easier to think that we are healthy enough that we won’t be infected.

I could be wrong, because I am not an expert, but I believe that our government had failed in those initial stages of the outbreak, where it could have at least instilled a sense of awareness and urgency among the public. Instead, they were more dismissive than they should have been and now our country is on the brink of facing the dire consequences of their (in)actions. Even at this point, when we should be extremely worried, many people are still comfortably sticking to their daily routines, when we need to be making considerable disruptions into our regular habits as a collective effort to contain COVID-19.

For those of us who are able to stay at home, much of this will come down to individual choices and actions. But for so many others, it’s also about what the government ought to be doing; and the question then becomes whether they are doing enough at present. Have they considered how to reach out to communities that may have limited access to information; those who may not necessarily be tech-savvy enough to point out the difference between facts and opinions at this critical juncture? Have they provided economic reassurances to those whose jobs require them to be outside of their homes? Are they even truly taking care of our healthcare workers, who are on the frontlines of this great big fight?

News reports suggest otherwise. Motorcycle taxi drivers are losing their incomes as more people stay at home, doctors taking care of COVID-19 patients are dying with a lack of protective equipments being raised as one of the issues right now, and so many others are stubbornly sticking to the idea that life and death is a matter of fate and are therefore not practicing any form of social distancing whatsoever.

I realize I am more informed about this viral disease than the average person, and therefore I am terrified for those who are not getting their information right. When things are happening at a distance, it’s difficult for facts to truly sink in. It’s even harder when you have other things to worry about — you and your family’s survival, for instance. While I have been informing friends and family to avoid crowds, stay at home as much as they can, to wash their hands properly and often, to take as much precautions as possible; these things may sound like a bunch of hasty noise to others. It really didn’t help that officials have downplayed the real threat of COVID-19 for weeks and falsely guaranteeing that they wouldn’t affect us the way it did other nations. That’s not how infectious disease works, unfortunately.

As I continuously learn about the disease, hearing from experts about their new findings on this novel coronavirus and understanding the implications on different parts of the world as well as how other governments are handling the situation… well, our trajectory doesn’t look so good and it gets more concerning with each passing day. The truth is, I am angry with the stark incompetence and improper handling of a public health crisis — an actual matter of life and death for too many people — and the blunders that are certainly avoidable if only our “leaders” were more capable but have sadly place us right where we are.

We need more testing. We need better calls to action that are not merely suggestions on paper. We need to get more medical equipment and protective suits for our healthcare facilities and workers. We need better coordination among government institutions that would translate to transparency. We need better access to reliable information. We need the government to provide financial safety nets for workers who are most vulnerable. And we need all this today.

As for the rest of us, we need to stay the fuck home.



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