Coronavirus disease, COVID-19, cases in Indonesia have skyrocketed since two tested positive on March 2. The number of cases has gradually climbed to 50 between March 2 and 13, doubled to 100 cases by March 17, rose to 300 cases as of March 19, and had reached 790 cases by March 25.
COVID-19 cases remain geographically concentrated in Jakarta (463) and the rest of Java island (246), but the virus has spread to nearly the entire archipelago. The situation has become increasingly grim. Facing shortages of personal protection equipment, several medical doctors have already passed away from the coronavirus, meanwhile photos of exhausted medical personnel lying on hospital floors in Indonesia have circulated on social media.
According to the Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Simulation at the Bandung Institute of Technology, COVID-19 cases in Indonesia could exceed 8,000 by mid April. Based on current trends, Indonesia will need to take strong action now to slow the spread and avoid overwhelming its healthcare system.
Current Measures and Growing Calls for a Lockdown
The Indonesian government is currently pursuing a one-month suspension of all foreigner arrivals and the segmentation of suspected cases into house quarantine and hospital quarantine. Hospital quarantine is being implemented for cases with more severe symptoms (mild to severe pneumonia) or those who have had contact with people testing positive for the coronavirus.
In anticipation of the increased caseload, the central government has also converted the Kemayoran Athlete House, used to host athletes for the 2018 Asian Games, into a medical facility with an estimated capacity of 3,000 patients at any one time.
At the epicenter of the virus outbreak in Indonesia, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan declared a state of emergency for two weeks and announced measures to curtail social interactions. During this period, all places of recreation and entertainment are to be closed, businesses and offices are to implement work from home measures, and operating hours for public transportation, shopping centers, and restaurants have been reduced.
There have also been growing calls for a lockdown by Indonesian politicians and medical professionals. An area quarantine or lockdown, based on legal provisions in the Law on Health Quarantine No. 6/2018, would involve movement restrictions for residents inside a quarantine line to be enforced by police and healthcare personnel.
The Jakarta government has proposed soft lockdown and hard lockdown scenarios to the central government. In a soft lockdown, convenience stores and pharmacies will remain open and public transportation systems will operate at reduced capacity. A hard lockdown would mean a total public transport shutdown with only one person in every family permitted to buy daily necessities every two to three days.
Analysis: How a Lockdown Could Look Like in Jakarta
Unlike lockdowns implemented in Italy and India, a nation-wide lockdown across Indonesia’s 17,000 islands would be difficult and ineffective. At this juncture, Jakarta appears to be the most likely candidate for a city-wide lockdown. It is both the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the country and a lockdown could limit the spread to outlying regions.
The central government has been reluctant to put a lockdown in place because of implementation challenges and the significant socioeconomic costs. Even if public transportation is stopped, prohibitions for Jakartans travelling outside the city cannot be enforced as many residents have personal vehicles — without a national level directive they’d still be able to travel.
Furthermore, the urban infrastructure in the sprawling city, with many small roads and alleyways, will make a lockdown difficult to enforce. Conceivably, it is possible to maintain a city-wide lockdown with military or police personnel to close the main entry and exit points. This could prevent the spread of the coronavirus to outlying regions, but it would still be challenging to ensure everyone stay at home. A partial lockdown by identifying clusters and quarantining specific neighborhood units simultaneously across the city is also possible.
Additionally, a lockdown would deeply affect the informal sector. Fifty-five percent of Indonesians work in the informal sector and subsist on daily wages. These people would have no income in a lockdown and no emergency medical leave. This includes those working in shops, street food vendors, and vendors in traditional markets. Foot traffic at Tanah Abang Market (a major textile market) in Jakarta has fallen by 80 percent, deeply affecting the livelihoods of thousands of sellers and textile producers already.
To support a lockdown, government aid to the poorest households and those surviving on daily wages would also have to be enhanced. The central government has already pledged to expand food assistance for 15.2 million needy households starting in April. More help would be needed as poverty rates will likely widen in an economic downturn. To do so, the government may have to pass an interim emergency law to expand government deficit spending above the legal limit of 3 percent of GDP.
Need for Caution: Assessing the Unanticipated Impact of a Lockdown
While it is true that a lockdown would be a decisive step to control the pandemic, hasty or poor implementation could exacerbate existing inequalities and social tensions. Indeed, Indonesia’s finance minister has said that although funds have been prepared, there would be tremendous manpower challenges in delivering essential supplies to residents in a lockdown.
Additionally, the social impact of a pandemic has tended to fall hardest on certain groups, especially minorities. In the United States, reported cases of harassment and racial discrimination against Chinese and Asian Americans have surged after President Donald Trump called COV-19 s the “Chinese virus.”
In Indonesia, a perfect storm of panic buying induced by a lockdown, informal workers with razor-thin financial buffers, and inadequate logistical support, could lead to scarcity and hardship for many. This could also generate racial discrimination and stigmatization against Chinese Indonesians or Chinese foreign workers as COVID-19 “carriers,” either in Java island or beyond.
The bottom line is that while a lockdown could drastically slow the coronavirus outbreak in Indonesia, there is a real risk that economic, social, and racial tensions that had previously been papered over by prosperity could burst to the surface if policies are implemented without taking them into consideration.
Jefferson Ng is a senior analyst, Indonesia Programme, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.