The government finally released the figures for people infected and suspected of being infected with Covid-19. Transparency is needed, not centralization.
ALTHOUGH a bit too late, the statement by President Joko Widodo on the need for the government to release Covid-19 data comes as a relief. This statement corrects the previous government position that gave the impression of covering up the number of infected and possibly infected people. Initially, Jokowi took the view that transparency would make people uneasy. He forgot that without openness, even regional quarantining or lockdowns would be ineffective in ending the pandemic.
Covering up the Covid-19 statistics is pointless, it only leads to confusion. Instead of reassuring the public, incomplete data leads to the government taking wrong decisions. Officials quoting incorrect information underestimate the seriousness of the issue and as a result, people lose their sense of crisis. When the correct information is eventually released, the government loses credibility—the fundamental requirement for mobilizing social solidarity at a time of crisis.
Even though the president has admitted his error, there is still confusion over the data. Just look at what has happened in Jakarta. The Capital’s administration has recently announced that the number of burials in the city is much higher than the average before the pandemic. Most of these bodies have been buried according to the procedures for Covid-19 patients—an indication that the death rate resulting from the pandemic is far higher than the total claimed by the central government.
There is no evidence that all these people died of Covid-19. It is possible that the burial procedure was followed to protect the medical personnel, families and officials at the cemeteries. But it is not impossible that the opposite is true: that the deceased people had been infected with Covid-19 but had not included in the statistics. There could be a number of reasons for this. They might have not been tested, or the results might not have come through before they died.
Given the political sentiments and the tensions between Jokowi and Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, the discrepancies in the data have made people suspicious. Some accuse the central government of understating the number of cases, while others claim the Jakarta administration is simply being sensationalist. It is the job of the Covid-19 task force to consolidate this conflicting data by checking the discrepancies, clarifying matters and then reporting to the public.
It is not easy to clarify unclear information. In the provinces, as well as the non-implementation of the Covid-19 cases reporting system, the problem seems to be the centralization of laboratories offering swab tests. This must be addressed immediately. The government has increased the number of swab test labs, initially from three to 29, and subsequently to 78. Tests can now be carried out in many locations outside the capital.
Openness does not mean centralizing data. Government transparency should include respecting the information issued by regional administrations, private institutions and other independent bodies. The task force should not solely rely on ministry of health data as a benchmark.
Neither must there be any reluctance to correct wrong data. We could learn from the experience of New York. Last week, the state governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced an additional 3,778 deaths from Covid-19 because a number of people who had died with symptoms of the virus but who had not been tested, had not been included in the statistics. This change was the result of new guidelines issued by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
In short, forget political motives in this matter of pandemic statistics. Concealing the number of cases is just as dangerous as exaggerating it.