Covid-19 and Indonesia: Not Quite a Lockdown

Jakarta has studied the examples of Malaysia and India and decided not to implement a full lockdown amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The social and economic costs are deemed to be too high.

Indonesian men spray disinfectant on a motorist as he enters a neighborhood amid Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak in Bekasi on March 30, 2020. (Photo: REZAS, AFP)

Siwage Dharma Negara

3 April 2020

On 31 March, after a cabinet meeting, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo declared that Indonesia is in a public health emergency. The move was made to brace the country to respond to the impact of Covid-19 pandemic.

The country has recorded 1,790 infected people and 170 fatalities as of to date. There is no lockdown but the government will implement stricter large-scale social and physical distancing measures within the community. As this is not a total lockdown as some might expect, people are still allowed to conduct their activities outside their homes. Indonesia is also implementing a travel ban on foreign visitors seeking to enter the country from 2 April until further notice. Practically, the country has gradually restricted the movement of people.

The government has resisted demands to lock the country down, citing concerns about the serious social and economic implications that such measures would entail. The lockdown proposition is seen as something that would be difficult to implement, given the high levels of communal and informal activities in Indonesia. Given the spike in the number of infections and fatalities, however, the government has been forced to take stricter measures short of a full lockdown.

To cushion the impact of Covid-19, especially to the poor and the most vulnerable groups, the government will expand several social protection programmes. This includes expanding the cash transfer programme to support poor households; expanding the food card programme to help the poor in getting their food staples, and reducing or even waiving electricity tariffs for millions of poor families.

For that, the Indonesian government has allocated additional budget of around IDR 405 trillion (US$ 25 billion), or about 16 per cent of the 2020 national budget. One-fourth of the additional budget will be allocated for financing the aforementioned social protection programmes. The rest are meant to provide a stimulus for struggling small and medium enterprises and industries.

While some argue that the emergency measures should have come earlier, the government appears to be quite hesitant to lock down the country. Drawing lessons from Malaysia, India and the Philippines, locking down a country without good planning and implementation creates unintended outcomes, such as starvation. Nevertheless, the government has realised that a stricter policy is necessary to avert a bigger crisis due to the spread of Covid-19.

… it remains to be seen if regional heads will take the cue from the central government, and how the latter might respond to any displays of defiance.

Looking ahead, there are at least three big challenges for the government. One is related to how quickly and effectively it can execute the social protection programmes simultaneously. It needs a credible targeting mechanism supported by accurate data of the beneficiaries, such as informal workers and daily workers. The data will ensure that those suitably entitled will get the necessary financial supports.

Unfortunately, the data is fragmented and often not available. The government is struggling to get the information on the most affected groups. These include petty traders, manual factory workers, construction workers, cleaners, daily-rated workers and ride-hailing drivers.

Another issue is related to the classical coordination problem within a decentralized system. It is often difficult to synergise policies between the central government and local governments, and between different local governments. Several regional heads, such as Tegal in Central Java and Tasikmalaya in West Java, have taken the initiative to lockdown their respective areas without coordinating with the central government. On this, Jokowi has instructed that all policies in the regions must comply with the national regulations. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen if regional heads will take the cue from the central government, and how the latter might respond to any displays of defiance.

Finally, the capacity of state and regional institutions to carry out the programmes is mixed, if not lacking altogether. There are inherent problems associated with implementation capacity and the ability to enforce the regulations. The country is lacking a good governance and monitoring system in various key institutions, from the central to the regional level. The risk of the programmes being subjected to corruption or channeled for personal gain remains high. This has to be monitored closely, particularly by civil society. The authorities need to ensure public compliance, enforce the rules and maintain order and security. With the poor implementation of the social protection programmes, the government cannot rule out the potential risk of social unrest.

Certainly, the government’s capacity to provide social safety nets for the poor and the vulnerable group is limited. As such, public participation and support are critical. Every citizen is responsible for mitigating the impact of Covid-19. Thankfully, communities have gone the extra mile to promote social solidarity and help the poor and vulnerable. It goes without saying that in such perilous times, public solidarity and a willingness to prioritise the national interest, combined with coordinated government measures, will help power Indonesia through.

Dr. Siwage Dharma Negara is an ISEAS Senior Fellow, co-coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme, and the coordinator of the APEC Study Centre.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/46

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.