Indonesia, Australia and the virus

Both countries’ efforts to balance public health challenges with the economic impacts of the pandemic have been problematic. But outside groups have stepped in the fill the gaps.

Indonesia, Australia and the virus Photo: Unsplash

As the world passed one year living with Covid-19, the pandemic has proven the most salient contemporary challenge to governments and policymakers. While foremost a public health crisis, the pandemic has caused unprecedented secondary shocks and raised existential questions about what societies value most. For two close neighbors Australia and Indonesia policymaking in response to the -19 crisis has been at times conjectural and reactive, highlighting intrinsic flaws in the respective governments’ capacities to coordinate nationally.

While different as neighbors, Australia and Indonesia have experienced familiar policy questions around shared responsibility in multilevel systems of government and exclusive jurisdictional authority. In both Australia and Indonesia, civil society has stepped up to bridge the gaps of government intervention and policy.

The Covid-19 experience

Policy pathways to responding to Covid-19 can be surmised into three broad categories: lockdowns and social distancing measures; testing, diagnosing and isolating; and behavioral change through communication and public messaging. Both Australia and Indonesia have a combination approach using each of these elements, but with differing emphasis on each at the national and regional levels. Having recorded its first case of Covid-19 on Jan 25 2020, Australia was quickly ushered into blanket regional lockdowns with widespread public messaging to “stay home” to slow the spread of the virus to buy time for public health preparedness.

Since Indonesia recorded its first three coronavirus cases on March 2, 2020, Jakarta has generally moved from a position of deep denial to swift action in responding to the virus. In so doing, it has highlighted the equally vital role of regional governments across Indonesia and Australia to respond promptly to the pandemic. While Jakarta and Canberra tended to narrow their focus on the macroeconomic impacts of the crisis, regional governments have been responsible for initiating large-scale restrictions, safety nets and frontline response to the pandemic, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Fractures in national unity

The principles of federalism and regional autonomy reflected in Australia and Indonesia respectively have meant that different levels of government have interpreted the pandemic and its impacts differently. Not always clear, this delineation has hampered both countries’ immediate pandemic response and led to ongoing coordination challenges across both Indonesia’s decentralized archipelago and Australia's disaggregated territories. Australia’s central government initially took a light touch coordinating role and handballed much of the responsibility for lockdowns and quarantines to regional governments. Since then, Australia has been criticized for resembling “whack-a-mole” and suffering an overall lack of consistency. Perhaps most blatant was the patchwork of responses developed by states unilaterally in closing internal borders, bringing in a new era of provincialism and competition among states.

The Indonesian central government’s deferment to its provincial governments during the initial stages of the pandemic meant that many were left without the policy tools to effectively respond to outbreaks through mandating local lockdowns or quarantines. Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan became the first regional leader to call for and order large-scale restrictions and border checkpoints. Despite active discouragement from national ministers, he re-implemented large-scale lockdown in September due to escalating numbers and potential for Jakarta’s public health system to be overwhelmed.

Public health and economic vitality

The nature of the Covid-19 response has largely been informed by the level of importance placed on the economy over life. Countries’ response globally and locally have been fractured, with some governments opting to apply no restrictions and rely on public communications for behavioral change, with others designing quasi-lockdowns and strict stay-at-home mandates.

Much of Indonesia’s response has relied on less than rigorous social distancing measures, and little was done to boost health system capability. However, the response proved imperfect, with only one-quarter of employees in Jakarta working from home and much of daily life remaining unchanged despite the risks. As Indonesia approached its biggest holiday, Idul Fitri, in May 2020, the national government was hesitant to prevent citizens from undertaking the traditional mass exodus to their hometowns, known as mudik. Rather, the mixed-message approach saw the emerging virus spread from epicenters of Greater Jakarta and Bandung, West Java Province, to provinces with weaker health care systems but fewer virus infections circulating at the time. The large-scale social restrictions placed on the Australian city of Melbourne during its second wave saw hundreds of anti-lockdown protestors fill the streets in support of “freedom” and the termination of the state premier. While representative of a small minority, it speaks to the precarious nature of policymaking in any federated system, whereby differential rules are applied across the country.

A question mark

Such responses are often reflective of social security measures and the public health messaging in place. The Morrison government has remained focused on its 2019 election commitment to put Australia “back in black” by reeling in ballooning public debt. Succumbing to intense pressure as lockdowns left millions unemployed, the government introduced “Jobseeker” and “JobKeeper” programs worth $170 billion that sought to boost existing social welfare payments. However, the policy’s aggressive tapering plan means that most increases are likely to set to end in March 2021, a little under a year since they were raised.

Australia’s communications have also tended to target the narrow middle-class cultural majority, missing large swathes of vulnerable and diverse communities. As the virus took off again in Melbourne, central and regional government communications in Arabic were “nonsensical.” In these areas, the economic impacts of the strict lockdown were felt hard and fast, with little formal messaging justifying the lockdowns from the government.

Across Indonesia, misinformation has been widespread and public health messaging often contradictory or haphazard between levels of government. This was epitomized by the #IndonesiaTerserah hashtag that gained traction as the central government eased travel restrictions across the country and actively encouraged domestic tourism, contradictory to the epidemiological trends and regional jurisdictional policy.

That said, a countrywide lockdown is not possible in Indonesia. The head of the Covid -19 National Tasks Force, Donni Monardo, acknowledged that the government lacked the fiscal resources to provide for the basic needs of 270 million citizens in the event of a sustained lockdown. Nascent social welfare system across Indonesia and the high prevalence of insecure work, the economic costs of lockdowns would be too high for the 57 percent of Indonesians working in the informal sector from street vendors to ojek drivers.

Community, civil society resilience

In this context, it is important to highlight the critical role civil society has in the global pandemic and economic recovery. In both countries, it is clear that community leaders and civil society have also stepped up to fill critical gaps in government policy.

A mosque and youth multicultural center in Melbourne’s north area, for example, produced videos in multiple languages featuring local community leaders and people who had contracted the virus to raise community understanding and help bridge gaps in public trust in government. Indonesia is known for its high civic society spirit and awareness, demonstrated by its global ranking of sixth in the world in the 2020 Legatum Prosperity Index. To this end, many local groups across smaller cities such as Yogyakarta and Solatia in Central Java addressed the social welfare gaps through crowdfunding to help support vulnerable informal sector workers who were out of work from social distancing measures.

Others prepared meals and responded quickly to the growing issue of returning workers from high-risk cities by establishing facilities where they could quarantine safely away from family and community.

Lessons learned and the next challenge

In both Indonesia and Australia, balancing public health challenges with the economic impacts of the pandemic have been less than perfect. National approaches have shaped the capacity and effectiveness of responses to the pandemic, but also provided critical counterpoints and pathways for tailored, localized measures that buffered national impacts of virus transmission. While imperfect, both countries' crisis management were bolstered by active civil society and collective efforts to respond to government failure.

Overall, resilience has been a hallmark of both the Australian and Indonesian peoples throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Indonesia’s demonstrated resilience and adaptation remains key, particularly among the Indonesian people, who take grassroots responsibility to support government policy. In consideration of the Australia-Indonesia bilateral relationship, this is important to highlight. Equally important is for civil society to be supported by clear, effective public policy to ensure a scaled, coordinated response. Strong public policy will continue to play a critical role in the pandemic response, and in particular as both governments face the next foreseeable challenge distributing a safe and effective vaccine in an equitable way.

Kate Purcell and Jayne Fendyk are participants in the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program, held virtually for the first time due to Covid-19 pandemic.

You need to login to write a comment!