On Raffi Ahmad, COVID-19, and why Indonesians deserve better

Raffi Ahmad while while receiving a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 13, 2021. The event was shown on a live broadcast on YouTube.

As I was watching celebrity and host Raffi Ahmad being among the first in Indonesia to receive the COVID-19 vaccine during a live broadcast, my first thought was this: Why?

It didn’t come as a total surprise because I’d seen a draft list of priority recipients a few days prior, though I honestly didn’t think the government was going to go through with the part of including social media influencers. Officials deemed Raffi as a “key opinion leader” and “representative” of the younger generation, and though I find that baffling, it’s kind of hard to argue against that when you look at the numbers.

Evidently, Raffi is hugely popular in the country. For starters, he has almost 50 million followers on Instagram (a joint account he shares with his wife Nagita Slavina), and if you turn on TV on any given afternoon, chances are you’d stumble upon Raffi hosting a talkshow or starring in his own series. You get to see him not only during a certain time slot, but pretty much throughout the day. He’s also brand ambassador for Alfamart, one of the biggest convenience store chains in Indonesia, which makes him a harder face to avoid even offline (pretty sure my Alfamart membership card has a picture of his family on it).

In short, Raffi appears to be a somewhat strategic choice to try and convince the public in the world’s fourth populous country that getting vaccinated is a good thing. A familiar face, known (and maybe even loved) by millions, will increase trust in the vaccine, and helps ensure the success of Indonesia’s mass vaccination program. Couple that with results of a poll last month that showed only 37% of Indonesians are willing to be vaccinated, while 40% says they would consider it and 17% refused, according to a report from Reuters. As far as a communications strategy goes… it kind of makes sense, right?

Amid a raging pandemic, getting vaccinated is an enormous privilege, and whether or not Raffi was deserving of that turned into a hot debate online: Why Raffi, of all people? Why not health workers, who are on the frontlines of this pandemic? Why is the government insisting on embracing so-called influencers during a public health crisis? Since Wednesday, we’ve heard varying takes from health experts, ordinary citizens, and everybody in between.

As all this was unfolding that day, I was reminded again of how my online consumption doesn’t exactly follow what’s considered mainstream. I recently watched Indonesia Rewind 2020 on YouTube (which has now garnered over 26 million views), for example, and I barely recognized most of the creators featured on there. Keeping that in mind, I thought I shouldn’t force my own preference if the goal is to reach more people. The choice of Raffi may not appeal to me or my peers, but it doesn’t mean it won’t work as intended for so many others — there are about 270 million of us, after all.

I still don’t agree with the choice of Raffi at a personal level, but maybe I had to concede and accept that it might have been a strategic choice indeed. But then Raffi decided it was a good idea to attend a party on the same day he received the vaccine.

Screenshots from Instagram

Just FYI, the vaccine does not immediately grant you immunity against COVID-19 once you get a shot, so health protocols are still very much necessary. In addition, Raffi only received the first of two doses on Wednesday. If he was briefed on any of this, then that must have fallen on deaf ears because photos of him during the party showed him unmasked while completely flouting social distancing.

Images of him during this party quickly went viral; people called him out for his reckless behavior and urged him to set a better example. It’s the kind of controversy that moved pretty fast: officials responded by saying they will issue a warning to Raffi, and this was soon followed with the 33-year-old taking to Instagram to apologize, addressing the public and President Joko Widodo.

A questionable choice (Raffi, in this case, and other influencers who are next in line for the COVID-19 vaccine) was made and well-founded concerns surrounding it became a reality.

More than anything, this cause célèbre reminds me of its predecessors: all those government blunders that have featured consistently throughout the COVID-19 crisis. While previous examples might be more clear-cut (oh, I don’t know, “praying the coronavirus away” courtesy of ourformer Health Minister comes to mind), the case of having social media influencers as a vaccine priority cornered even the most sensible among us into thinking that “this is the best choice we’ve got given the situation.” As much as I didn’t agree with the choice myself, it felt like arguing otherwise would be foolish if I were to take the bigger picture into account.

And yet… if you take a second longer to look closely at the whole thing, you might notice that we’ve been here before. Indonesians have been asked, time and time again, to compromise and settle for less, and it is not due to a lack of options. Unfortunately for us, incompetent people are setting the agenda and running the country; making far-reaching decisions based on surface-level considerations.

We are forced into thinking that this is just how things are in Indonesia, that asking for more is simply too much. Indonesia’s too complex. It could be worse, they (we?) say. We’re supposed to think that calling for a common sense policy and criticizing the government for their missteps are unacceptable. We are trapped within this self-fueled inferiority complex that exists alongside unfounded messages of greatness, the government being the loudest simultaneously on these two fronts. The same people have missed windows of opportunities to tackle this pandemic effectively, all while sending mixed signals to the people that underestimates the gravity of our situation.

Which is why the choice of Raffi Ahmad and having influencers included on the vaccine priority list serve as a great example of this chaotic mess. Wishful thinking prodded even those who have been critical of the government into being more optimistic about the choice, but his eventual blunder just reaffirms our initial thoughts that we can’t, and perhaps should have never, expected more from this group of people. Raffi has barely set a good example on following health protocols prior to getting the vaccine, despite his great many following. Why exactly is the government putting their faith on him? And it’s supposedly not just this one celebrity either, so it’s important to note that many Indonesian celebrities/influencers are part of the problem in this pandemic. They travel around like there’s nothing to worry about, they meet friends in person and dine out, and then they contract COVID-19 and are suddenly wise enough to tell people to stay at home. It’s infuriating.

The issue of influencers in Indonesia go far beyond the COVID-19 metric, and that’s worth considering when we put emphasis on their popularity. Sure, we can account for them being “interesting” as a factor of why they have so many fans, but their multiplied influence on society is also a result of them being the chosen face of many profit-making ventures. They garnered just enough attention at some point, and that was spun and capitalized into things that eventually allowed them to grow bigger. They host a show and the viewership looks great, so why not have them host more shows? Can we perhaps say this was exactly the case for Raffi?

It’s all connected. People turn their heads to see what’s up, and suddenly these people become big enough that no one can’t look away. However, many got to be incredibly famous among the Indonesian audience simply because local networks offer limited options (in a country where people still tune in to day TV), so instead they chose familiar recipes and present the same thing over and over again, just packaged a little differently. That familiarity gets all the wilder when you bring social media into the picture, all while digital literacy is still insufficient.

To some extent, I think the power that some Indonesian influencers have in terms of followers result from the many gaps and problems in our digital sphere, and so for the goVErNmEnt to decide that “embracing” them during a public health crisis is a smart move seems like ignorance and foolishness to me. These people are supposed to know better, you know? That’s why they’re in charge, aren’t they?

I mean, no one in their right mind can honestly say that the Indonesian government has had an effective public health campaign during this pandemic, not while we’re still suffering from a lack of testing and data transparency, and regional leaders are still feeding dangerous conspiracy theories like hospitals exaggerating COVID-19 deaths.

Don’t even get me started on Indonesia’s domestic tourism campaigns (which were also partly driven by influencers) and subsequent policies on mobility. There were 12,818 cases reported yesterday, our highest daily count yet. First of all, those numbers are probably only a fraction of the real cases. Second of all, the spikes we’ve seen this past week didn’t come out of nowhere — we’re seeing the results of the very real and official decision that allowed people to travel during the year-end break.

Oh, let’s not forget that it took the president months to replace the health minister, as if the previous one had done much for this country during the pandemic. Please don’t give me the sappy narrative of people working hard behind the scenes and whatnot, because we should hold our officials accountable to higher standards. A decent official should have admitted their failure and resigned, and a decent leader should be able to notice the problem and remove it. But no, let the people live in a limbo.

And now, as the queue for coronavirus vaccines begin in Indonesia, our government saw it fit to have social media influencers among the first in line.

Photo courtesy of the Cabinet Secretariat

I see it, don’t get me wrong. Indonesians are among the top global users of social media platforms, so when we take this into account, it becomes easier to believe that embracing social media influencers are simply a strategic choice for our officials. But I hope that after all I’ve written thus far, you’d realize too that all Indonesians deserve better.

Despite his impressive number of followers, Raffi was simply an unfit choice as a vaccine recipient. He showed that to us when he went to party sans masks and social distancing, only hours after getting his first vaccine shot. But this is not about him, this is about the people who chose him in the first place.

We deserve more than just wide-reaching celebrities telling us to trust the vaccine. We deserve effective public health campaigns, for fuck’s sake. Even when it’s been more than 10 months, I’d say it’s better late than never.

I don’t know about you, but the government has not been my go-to when it comes to credible information regarding the coronavirus. My better understanding of this viral disease and public health crisis is thanks to dependable news outlets (and journalists!), experts taking the time to share their knowledge online, and health workers sharing their experiences on the ground on social media. But combing through the wealth of information on the world wide web is both tricky and taxing, and while the government would ideally fill in this gap; they have yet to do so effectively and efficiently in Indonesia.

If we need “vaccine ambassadors,” then it better be people who actually know what they are talking about, who can deliver the message well, and who can also set good examples consistently, because let’s face it: we’ve still got a long way to go before we see the end of this pandemic. Why are these precious vaccines being given to people who have shown reckless and not-exactly-pandemic-friendly behavior? If the issue is reaching people, then get creative. I’m not a communications expert, but the live feature on Instagram comes to mind. Have credible people sit down virtually with the influencers, guide them to a healthy discussion to appeal to the larger audience. Use the public television network to broadcast creative but credible messages, collaborate with these millennial creators to produce the right type of content, don’t merely let them take the wheel and run free.

Once you give this a little bit more thought, it becomes clear that choosing someone based on their perceived popularity (read: number of followers) is easy, lazy, and frankly lame. We deserve much better, so let’s not ease up on demanding this from our government. Let’s not settle for less than what we deserve.

Our health workers deserve to be prioritized, and no, not after influencers. When we protect our health workers, we are building even more strength in the fight against COVID-19.

We may have a vaccine now, but the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s a long road ahead to reach herd immunity, but even at this very point we’ve still got plenty of issues to deal with. Hospital beds are full, our health workers are dying, and we’re running out of space to bury the dead. Our government may be placing high hopes in the vaccine, but we still can’t let up basic health protocols. Before you regard this as pessimism, please consider the reality. It’s going to take all of us to beat this health crisis, so we gotta have some collective clarity here.

Indonesians deserve better public health policies, not just policies taken as an ad-hoc response to an ongoing crisis. We shouldn’t have to choose between people’s lives and the economy, we shouldn’t have to compromise between these two. We shouldn’t have to rely on dumb luck when we go out to make a living, just hoping we won’t get infected. We deserve effective policies that are fighting for all of our lives.

Indonesian journalist, currently based in Bali.

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