Indonesia and Covid-19: Worst of Both Worlds

Jakarta is going into a second lockdown in the wake of the Covid-19. This time, it is hoped that the capital will avoid the nightmare scenario: a lockdown that fails to stop community transmission and a further contraction of the economy.

Local officials carry a mock coffin to promote awareness over the COVID-19 coronavirus in Jakarta on September 15, 2020.
Local officials carry a mock coffin to promote awareness over the Covid-19 coronavirus in Jakarta on September 15, 2020. (Photo: Bay Ismoyo, AFP)
Quinton Temby

Quinton Temby

17 September 2020

Indonesia appears to be losing its battle to contain spread of the coronavirus. With a recent spike of infections in Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, the governor of the capital city, is planning to reintroduce lockdown measures, known in Indonesia as “large scale social restrictions” (PSBB). Starting this week, most offices were forced to close and limitations on mobility will be imposed within the capital, ending the “new normal” phase that had been in place since the city’s first lockdown in April.

According to official numbers, Indonesia’s confirmed infection caseload at 228,993 as of 16 September rivals the Philippines for the highest in Southeast Asia. But its case fatality rate is the highest in the region. So far, 9,100 people have died from the virus as of 16 September. The two largest hotspots are Greater Jakarta and East Java. But independent experts suspect these numbers vastly understate the problem. University of Indonesia epidemiologist, Pandu Riono, believes the death toll is at least three times the official number.

CFR of Ongoing Covid19 Pandemic

One proxy measure of the transmission of the virus in Indonesia is Google Trends data on searches for the phrase “loss of smell” in Indonesian (“tidak bisa mencium [bau]”). Temporary anosmia (loss of smell) is the most significant neurological symptom of Covid-19, and studies indicate that it better predicts the disease than other symptoms such as fever and cough. The data seem to reflect the relatively slow initial spread of the virus in Indonesia in the first half of the year. But from around the Idul Fitri holidays, either side of which large numbers of Indonesians travelled domestically, and following the easing of lockdown measures in June, the data indicate the contagion has been accelerating steadily. Whereas earlier the search data indicated a limited geographical spread focused on major cities such as Jakarta and Medan, now the data show a more even “search interest” (as Google terms it) across most of the archipelago, from Aceh in the west to Nusa Tenggara in the east.

On Twitter, news of the Google Trends data went viral, garnering almost a thousand retweets. The high Twitter engagement is perhaps itself a proxy measure of rising anxiety among Indonesians, who represent most of the retweets and likes, that containment measures have not worked and that the Indonesian government has mishandled its coronavirus response.

Mr Anies has drawn pushback against the re-imposition of the lockdown from president Joko Widodo, who is inclined to prioritise keeping the economy open. But Mr Anies, in justifying the restrictions, has released detailed data showing that Covid-19 referral hospitals in the capital are nearing capacity. There are anecdotal accounts of patients who do not have Covid-19 having difficulty finding a hospital bed. Mr Anies has sought to emphasise that the current situation “is an emergency, more urgent than at the start of the pandemic”. Meanwhile in Bali, where there was much lower capacity to begin with, hospital occupancy has already exceeded 100 per cent and medical staff are overwhelmed.

To date, Indonesia has reaped a worst-of-both-worlds scenario: a partial lockdown that has failed to stop community transmission and protect the economy. Some countries that have locked down effectively might have seen a “second wave”. If Indonesia does not tack the sails properly, it looks set to be blown off course in the long fight against Covid-19.

Dr Quinton Temby is a Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/138

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