Restrictions Ease in Indonesia as COVID-19 Cases Grow and Politicians Seize Opportunities

10 June 2020 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

After two months of lockdown, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo partly eased restrictions in Jakarta under the “new normal” policy on 8 June. Under the new restrictions, many facilities including offices, restaurants, shops and mosques have been re-opened at fifty per cent capacity and public transport has resumed. Two days before the policy was put in place, Indonesia saw its largest spike yet in daily COVID-19 cases, with 993 new infections recorded. That record was again broken just two days later, with 1,043 cases detected on 9 June.

Comment

At the time of writing, Indonesia has 33,976 confirmed cases of COVID-19, reported 1,923 deaths and 11,414 recoveries. Those figures, however, are likely largely understated. As noted in a previous Strategic Weekly Analysis, the infection fatality rate at the time of writing was high when compared to other countries, suggesting that there were a significant number of cases left undetected. That observation remains true. According to the provided figures, the fatality rate of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia is over seventeen per cent. Malaysia, on the other hand, which has testing rates around ten times higher than Indonesia, has an infection fatality rate of 1.7 per cent, ten times lower than in Indonesia. Extrapolating those figures could raise the number of estimated COVID-19 cases in Indonesia to over 300,000. That said, there are a multitude of factors that could come into play, such as low access to healthcare facilities in rural areas, the generally poorer quality of the healthcare services that are available to most Indonesians and high rates of smoking, which could make infections more deadly and thereby lower the number of estimated cases.

It is difficult to gauge what impact easing the restrictions will have on the spread of COVID-19. On one hand, more crowds are likely to gather. That has already been seen at train stations, where train operators can only carry half their normal load, which caused large queues snaking outside the stations. More crowding will inevitably lead to more COVID-19 cases. On the other hand, however, there are questions as to how effective the restrictions were in the first place. When the initial wave of restrictions was in place, there were frequent cases of crowds gathering and businesses flouting rules attracting attention on social media. One such case last month took place in Central Jakarta in the Tanah Abang sub-district, where pop-up stands selling clothes, which were not allowed to operate, drew large crowds for over a week. In response, hundreds of thousands of police and soldiers were deployed on 26 May to help enforce the rules, but which, in many cases, did little to deter crowds from gathering. Additionally, the restrictions failed to flatten or soften the curve of the total number of cases of COVID-19 infection. There were 2,491 total cases on 6 April, when restrictions were first implemented in Jakarta; that number has now risen to 33,076 and is showing no signs of slowing.

While there is little to gain from the situation in Indonesia, some of Jokowi’s political opponents and temporary allies might see an opportunity to boost their own support bases. In the early stages of the pandemic, Anies Baswedan, the Governor of Jakarta, implored the central government to get its act together and, after weeks of inaction, attempted to lock down Jakarta before being told by Jokowi that he had no authority to do so. The next day, Jokowi put in place mechanisms for Anies and other governors to implement the restrictions. The position of Jakarta governor has, in the past, been a springboard to presidency.  Pointing out the central government’s many flaws in dealing with the crisis while painting himself as a competent leader will aid Anies’s prospects as a possible contender in the next presidential election, due in 2024.

The recently appointed defence minister, Prabowo Subianto, also stands to gain political support from the crisis, but must play his cards right. Since the outbreak, Prabowo has kept quite a low profile and avoided being seen with other central government members while still expressing verbal support for Jokowi’s efforts. Positioning himself as more of a stable middle ground between Anies and Jokowi, Prabowo will need to also rely on the success of the Indonesian National Army (TNI) and its efforts to assist in the crisis. As a prominent figure behind the TNI, Prabowo could position himself as a reassuring sign of military discipline and competence, at a time when the government looks to be undisciplined and incompetent.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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