Indonesia to Open Economy Despite Coronavirus Spike

Critics say the economy really never closed

By: Ainur Rohmah

In a “new normal” that looks depressingly like the old normal, Indonesia is to begin reopening economic and social activity under health protocols starting in June even though coronavirus cases appear likely to spike upward in the wake of the Eid Al Fitr holiday, which brought thousands of possibly infectious people to Jakarta from the countryside.

President Joko Widodo said he is targeting a reduction of coronavirus transmission rates in May and hoping for moderate levels in June and mild in July 2020. However, data show Indonesia has continued to experience hundreds of new cases per day over the past two weeks, spiking up to 973 on May 21. Jakarta alone is adding 80 to 100 cases per day, even though the city is one of the regions picked to implement new normal.

Indonesia has never officially implemented a lockdown, rather recommending what are referred to as Large-Scale Social Restrictions (PSBB) in which residents are encouraged to work, worship, and learn from home. The measures are meant to contain the spread of the virus in the epicenters of Greater Jakarta and Surabaya, East Java, among other regions, but have forced businesses to close and left millions without jobs.  Scenes on crowded sidewalks and streets in Jakarta make it look like there has been little physical distancing.  

Achmad Yurianto, the spokesman for handling the Covid-19 pandemic, said the government has asked the public to adapt and coexist with the coronavirus by adopting lifestyles according to the new normal protocol, including staying as much as possible at home, diligently washing hands, avoiding crowds and wearing masks.

"The new normalcy is the most appropriate way (to handle COVID-19). The whole world is doing it this way because we cannot stop productivity," Yurianto said. "We don't know when a vaccine will be found."

Covid-19 task force chief Doni Monardo previously said the government would allow those under age 45 to resume their activities as usual to prevent them from losing their livelihoods. Data from the Ministry of Manpower shows unemployment has jumped by more than 2 million people in the month and a half since the pandemic officially appeared on March 2, although it has been in the country far longer. The Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati recently predicted unemployed and poverty-stricken in a very heavy pandemic would increase to 5.23 million and 3.78 million respectively.

To try to achieve the new normal, Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto recently signed a set of policies on prevention and control in offices and factories. The policies set requirements for businesses to be allowed to reopen. These include ensuring sufficient hand-washing facilities, checking employees’ temperatures, requiring employees to wear masks, keeping one meter of distance between employees at work, minimizing physical interaction with customers and avoiding the formation of crowds.

More than 300,000 army and police personnel will be deployed in four provinces and 25 districts to stand guard in crowded places to ensure public compliance with Covid-19 health protocols such as maintaining physical distancing and wearing masks. The designated regions should meet requirements before being allowed to reopen their economies such as significant declines in the number of confirmed and suspected cases for more than two weeks, and a significant decline in fatalities.

The government also prohibited the return of anywhere from million people from their villages to Jakarta following mudik, the Eid al Fitr celebration at the end of Ramadan, on May 24, over concerns that they would bring the virus back with them. The ministry of transportation and the police have also set up 11 checkpoints to restrict vehicles coming and going from Jakarta. Surveillance at airports and stations is also tightened.

Epidemiologists, however, have warned the government to be prudent in reopening the economy, arguing that the country continues to see a rise in cases. Syahrizal Syarif, an epidemiology expert from the University of Indonesia, said Indonesia won’t be able to implement new normal because transmission is still not under control.

"Daily case reports are still fluctuating, so it is too early to talk about new normality," Syafrizal said. The new normal policy, he continued, could be carried out in situations where the outbreak is under control while vaccines have not yet been found. However, of 34 provinces, 12 are reporting report dozens of new cases every day. Although Jakarta has claimed that cases are decreasing recently, the transmission rate remains quite high.

"So if the government wants to relax in the current situation of outbreaks, it must be prepared with the possibility of a surge considering the local transmission is still ongoing," Syafrizal said.

As of May 28, Indonesia had reported 687 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of infections nationwide to 24,538. Some 6,240 people have recovered but 1,496 have died after 23 new fatalities overnight.

Authorities have declared 48,749 people under surveillance – those who have traveled to the virus-hit regions or have been in contact with positive cases but do not show any symptoms – while some 13,250 patients remain under treatment with symptoms and are in medical care but still need their status confirmed through a test.

The country of 270 million people has previously been criticized for having one of the lowest testing rates in the world with only 1,061 per million people, raising many concerns that the real number of cases could be higher than official tallies. Indonesia had conducted polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests on 289,206 people by May 29.

Although cases continue to grow, the government reportedly will reopen schools on July 13, raising concerns from parents and teachers about the threat of infection of children. The Indonesian Teachers Association (IGI) has asked the government to postpone schooling until January 2022.

At least 584 children have been confirmed with the virus with 14 dead as of May 18, based on data from the Indonesian Pediatrician Association (IDAI). Around 3,324 children are in PDP status, and 129 children have died while still in that status. The data, according to IDAI, shows that children in the age group are also vulnerable, therefore policies regarding this group must be considered carefully.

Indonesia also ignoring a World Health Organization directive by continuing to recommend the anti-malaria drugs chloroquine and its derivative, hydroxychloroquine, for coronavirus patients but monitoring their use closely. The WHO has urged the country to suspend such treatment over safety concerns. 

In the Management of Covid-19 treatment protocol by the Indonesian Lung Doctors Association (PDPI), coronavirus patients with mild to severe symptoms may be treated with chloroquine and azithromycin although the impact of the use of these drugs is not known in Indonesia.

The government announced it would use chloroquine as a Covid-19 remedy in March. At that time, President Jokowi explained that the government had ordered 3 million chloroquine doses and claimed that the drug could provide healing. The government has also granted two dozen licenses to local manufacturers to accelerate the production of the drug in the country.

The Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto said the implementation of new normal activities was only in areas where the spread of coronavirus has decreased. However, economic activity will be stopped again if there is a second wave of the transmission. "We all do not expect a second wave or extraordinary circumstances. But if that happens, of course, there will be another protocol to deal with it," Airlangga said without mentioning details.