Indonesia at a Crossroads amidst Efforts to Contain the Coronavirus

Agus Suwignyo
Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Indonesia at a Crossroads amidst Efforts to Contain the Coronavirus

At the beginning of May, the Indonesian news and social media broke a big news story about 500 workers from the People’s Republic of China who were granted visas amidst the Indonesian government’s travel restriction to contain the Coronavirus. These workers would be heading to their final destination in South Konawe Regency in the Indonesian province of Southeast Sulawesi, where they would work at a nickel industrial plant.1 This plant has been operating with an investment from a PRC holding company under the auspice of the Indonesian Coordinating Ministry of Investment and Maritime Affairs.2

The arrival of the 500 Chinese plant workers raised sharp criticism from members of the Indonesian parliament (DPR), the local parliamentary representative of Southeast Sulawesi (DPRD) and some pressure groups, e.g. the Pemuda Muhammadiyah, the youth wing of Muhammadiyah, one of the largest Muslim organizations.3 While the pandemic would cause 2.9 million new cases of unemployment,4 why would the Indonesian government have hired foreign workers instead of domestic ones?5 Thus the critics have asked this question among others. Given that those workers had come from mainland China, allegedly believed to be the origin of the Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), the Indonesian public have also questioned President Joko Widodo’s commitment to stop the pandemic. The granting of visas to those Chinese plant workers shows inconsistency regarding domestic and international mobility restriction policy to withhold the Coronavirus.

Indeed, the Indonesian government is at a crossroads in dealing with the recent pandemic situation. On the one hand, the unprecedented spread of the Coronavirus has to be tackled with the highest measures and at an effective speed. On the other, there is a shadow of crises which will potentially take place unless the national economic growth is well maintained—which is not possible to do so during this ongoing health emergency situation. The dilemma has pushed Joko Widodo to decide whether to prioritize and focus on programs that aim to end the pandemic, or to keep going, despite the pandemic, with the infrastructure and industry projects that had been funded by foreign investors since his first term (2014-2019).


A Hesitant Response

Since the beginning, the government, with the president at the core, has shown hesitation to take an immediate, decisive response toward the pandemic. Until the end of February 2020, when the neighboring countries like Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines declared a state of emergency and immediately took strong measures to respond to the outburst of the pandemic in the region,6 Indonesian officials still took the threat for granted. It argued that, by then, no positive cases of Coronavirus infection had yet been discovered in this populous country of about 270 million (271,066,000 to be exact, 2020 projection).7 Several Indonesian high-rank officials even made stupid jokes about the Coronavirus. Coordinating minister for investment and maritime affairs, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, for example, mockingly responded the press saying “The Corona? The Corona cars already left Indonesia long time ago.” Panjaitan referred to the Toyota, which stopped producing the Corona cars in Indonesia in 1998. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Coordinating Board of Investment, Bahlil Lahadalia, said that no infected case had been found in Indonesia because, like investors, it was hard for the virus to get an entry permit.8 It was to nobody’s surprise that, on 2 March, two Coronavirus positive cases were eventually found in Jakarta. Their existence was announced nationally by President Joko Widodo himself.9

But the announcement was a little too late. The actual number of people potentially infected by that time had been tens of times more than the number officially recorded in the government statistics. This was later shown by the Indonesian medical authorities which have classified three categories of Coronavirus-related status of people. The categories are “Coronavirus positive,” the “Pasien dalam Pengawasan (PDP, patient under medical observation),” and “Orang dalam Pemantauan (ODP, person under medical surveillance).” “Coronavirus positive” refers to patients who have been officially declared as “infected” by a medical laboratory test. The PDPs are the patients who are under medical treatment for severe Coronavirus symptoms but the symptoms are still to be confirmed by a medical laboratory test. The ODPs refer to anyone who has been in physical contact or encounter with a Coronavirus positive group. The ODPs also include anyone who comes from or has just visited the pandemic epicenter areas (cities, regions, countries). The ODPs can turn into PDPs, who, when tested positive, turn to the Coronavirus positive.

On 17 March 2020, about two weeks after the first two known cases were announced by President Joko Widodo, the number of the Coronavirus positive counted for 172 cases.10 Jakarta and the neighboring densely populated cities like Depok and Bogor soon became the epicenters of the pandemic. The island of Java overall has effectively become a red zone. The cities of Bandung (West Java), Semarang (Central Java) and Surabaya (East Java) have recorded a high rate of new positive cases every day. Other islands such as Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Bali have also developed into red zones as tens of new cases were found every day.

As of today (May 10, 2020), about two months after the first two known cases were announced, all 34 provinces in Indonesia have reported Coronavirus positive patients with a total of 14,032 people. This number excludes the PDPs (30,317), and ODPs (248,960).11 The number of deaths, in particular, is intriguing. Up to 10 May, with 14,032 Coronavirus positive, the government’s statistics have recorded 973 deaths. But the chairman of the Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI, Ikatan Dokter Indonesia), Daeng M. Faqih, stated that the actual number of Coronavirus-related death is much higher than that reported in the government statistics. This is so because the government’s statistics do not usually count PDP and ODP deaths as the deaths caused by the Coronavirus.12 This makes a significant difference in the records. For example, with the 172 positive cases on the aforementioned 17 March, government statistics recorded 5 deaths whereas there were actually 7.13


Half-Hearted ‘PSBB’ Instead of Lockdown

In dealing with the rapid spread of the Coronavirus, President Joko Widodo has looked very hesitant in making any decisive policies. Unlike Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin of Malaysia and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who immediately locked down their capital cities, President Joko Widodo refrained from doing so despite strong pressures. His supporters try to understand his decision by referring to India, where a lockdown policy resulted in a chaotic situation. But some of the more critical supporters say that by refusing to carry out a lockdown, President Joko Widodo has refrained from giving a political show stage to the Governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan. Baswedan, the Minister of National Education in Widodo’s first-two years of administration (2014-2016) who then got reshuffled, has gained intense popularity during the pandemic. Baswedan has topped the list of the quickest and most effective leaders to respond to the Coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent poll.14 Should Joko Widodo decide to lock down Jakarta, the affairs of economic resilience and security of the quarantined capital would fall into the full hands of Baswedan, who won the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017 through the support of Islamic hardliners. This pandemic-politico drama becomes more and more interesting now. One of Widodo’s most trusted ministers, of Finance, Sri Mulyani, claimed her office had to provide the so-called bantuan sosial (bansos, cash relief), supposedly the responsibility of the local government, to the Jakartan people because Baswedan’s administration was not capable of providing it.15 But many Indonesians know quite well that the bansos, given its nature of direct outreach to recipients, is a very effective instrument to boost one’s popularity and, in due time, the people’s vote.

So, Joko Widodo refuses a lockdown in order to contain the Coronavirus. Instead, initially, he said he was going to employ a semi-military measure called darurat sipil (civilian emergency) based on the 1959 State Emergency Law, which was issued during the period of President Soekarno (in office August 1945 – March 1966). Under the darurat sipil scenario, the territorial military commanders will act as governors and will take over civilian administrative affairs from the existing popularly-elected governors. The military administration, under a direct command of the President, would be legally legitimate to take any measures necessary to, in this case, contain the Coronavirus. The darurat sipil scenario of course received wide criticism, especially from Indonesian Human Rights activists and members of the Indonesian parliament. President Joko Widodo consequently cancelled the darurat sipil scenario. In replacement, he issued a policy called pembatasan sosial berskala besar (PSBB, large scale social distancing). The PSBB is aimed at restricting people’s inter-area mobility. For example, from one city to another, to provinces or islands. International mobility also falls under the PSBB regulation. However, as indicated previously and still to be seen below, it seems, the PSBB policy has only half-heartedly been implemented.

The problems in the effective implementation of the PSBB policy have come, among others, from Joko Widodo himself. The President often makes confusing statements for the general public to understand.16 For example, earlier President Joko Widodo said, ‘Together we will fight against the Coronavirus, in the spirit of gotong royong (mutual help) and solidarity.’ This sounds like a declaration of war against the pandemic. But, later, the President said, ‘We have to make peace with the Coronavirus (Kita harus berdamai dengan virus Corona).’ This later discourse by the President invited questions of whether to contain the Coronavirus was no longer necessary and whether the PSBB policy has to be observed any further.


Mudik’ No, ‘Pulang Kampung’ Yes

Another confusion that the President has sowed, concerns his statement about ‘mudik’ and ‘pulang kampung,’ both literally mean ‘go home to one’s place of origin.’ This occurred at the end of April, when Muslims were preparing to welcome the fasting month of Ramadhan and, toward the end of it, the Idul Fitr festivities. In line with the government’ efforts to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, Joko Widodo said, people should stay where they are and are not allowed to go ‘mudik.’ For Indonesian Muslims, this instruction is hard to do because going ‘mudik’ for Idul Fitr festivities is a long-lived tradition. However, Widodo said, people are allowed to do ‘pulang kampung.’ He explained that the permit for ‘pulang kampung’, and not for ‘mudik’, was meant for domestic migrant workers who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Rather than staying in big cities without any more income, according to Joko Widodo, these unemployed workers would better go home to their kampong of origin.

Thus the president employed the expressions ‘mudik’ and ‘pulang kampung’ in contradictory discourses. People began to question about the difference between ‘mudik’ and ‘pulang kampung’ and why the President has used two contradictory discourses while both expressions literally mean the same thing. This has sown confusion and, again, unnecessarily produced time-wasting public debates.

The mudik and the pulang kampung basically involve people mobility from the place they live or work in, to the place where they come from. Yes, the two terms have different contexts of usage. ‘Mudik’ refers to a ‘pulang kampung’ activity for religious festivities in order for the doers to pay homage to their parents, the elderly and ancestors. Meanwhile, ‘pulang kampung’ can be done anytime. Yes, the president’s media aides were correct in explaining the specific context which differentiates between ‘mudik’ and ‘pulang kampung’. But, they forgot the essence that both ‘mudik’ and ‘pulang kampung’ would involve the mass mobility of people that might facilitate and enhance the spread of the Coronavirus.

The implementation of the PSBB policy reveals very poor coordination among different levels and sectors of institutional authorities. For example, the Ministry of Transportation suddenly re-opened public transport services (airplanes, trains and buses) amidst the continued rise of Coronavirus positive cases in the first week of May. Consequently, people have been confused, again, as to whether the PSBB is still in effect.17 Meanwhile, the Coordinating Ministry of Economy has released a document of the planned steps for economic recovery, to start from the 1 June, 2020. The concerned minister did not carry out any prior consultation with health and medical authorities.18 Thus, different government institutions have paved their own trajectories of policy making, with little coordination amongst themselves.

The lack of coordination is also identifiable in the administration down the line. As the President has looked indecisive and hesitant in making a national strategy to contain the Coronavirus, provincial and regency governments have chosen their own ways. The mayor of Solo, F.X. Hadi Rudyatmo, a long-time political ally to President Joko Widodo, for example, immediately employed strict measures restricting mass mobility when a Coronavirus positive case was found in his administrative territory in late March. The mayor of Tegal did the same and decided to lock down his city. At the lowest level of the administration, i.e. the desa or village especially in Java, the situation has been very dramatic. Many desa heads and the hamlet chiefs have physically closed their territories from outsiders by building portals to block access to kampongs. These local governments have aimed to protect their own people and territories from the pandemic at a time when the national state and governance seems to be absent.


Which Road to Take?

Indonesia is at a crossroads in dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic. The national government, represented by President Joko Widodo, has been hesitant to take decisive steps forward. It is obvious that maintaining the economy has caused dilemmatic hesitance. Yet, political factors have also contributed to compounding and complicating the dilemma.

President Joko Widodo and his administration has been quite successful in building toll roads and airports during the first term of his presidency, partly using foreign investments and loans. There are still some planned mega infrastructural projects to be completed. These include, among others, the trans-Java and the trans-Sumatra toll roads, the construction of the new capital city close to Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, and the expansion of airports. All these are meant to welcome more investments, trades and mobility that are expected to boost the economic growth. However, the Coronavirus pandemic reveals that Indonesia tremendously lacks of basic health service facilities for the people. With a population of about 270 million, this country has only 19,649 doctors and 140,071 nurses (proportionally, respectively, one doctor for 13,741 and one nurse for 1,927 inhabitants). To add, 95.4% of the doctors and 99.3% of the nurses are based in the island of Java! The pandemic has revealed blatantly the immediate need to improve medical infrastructures especially in the suburb and rural areas. The pandemic also shows that so many people are economically fragile and at risk of easily losing their sources of livelihood should a disaster happen like now.

Indonesia has a dilemma not only in regards as to whether it should prioritize a containment program against the Coronavirus, or soldier on with projections for economic progress. Furthermore, Indonesia will have to decide whether to continue with mega infrastructural projects or to improve the basic welfare facilities such as health infrastructure and services, job markets, social security networks and education. For President Joko Widodo, this pandemic is a test of his leadership. And to date, he has not shown a strong, decisive leadership so far.


30 April, 2020




Agus Suwignyo earned his doctorate degree in History from Leiden University in 2012, and is an assistant professor at the History Department, Faculty of Cultural Sciences Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.



Agus Suwignyo. 2020. “Indonesia at a Crossroads amidst Efforts to Contain the Coronavirus” CSEAS NEWSLETTER, 78: TBC.