Risks of New Normal
President Joko Widodo should be honest and open about the latest situation regarding Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) in Indonesia.
ONLY with transparency will the people be aware of the risks of their every action, especially when the new normal is now staring us in the face. The government must not hide behind epidemiological statistics which are based on inaccurate data.
Indonesia lost priceless momentum in the initial stages of spread of the coronavirus. When the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 as health emergency at the end of January, Minister of Health Terawan Agus Putranto did not act quickly. For at least the first two months of this year he did nothing.
This important period should have been used for the preparation of necessary equipment and procedures that could have restricted the spread of the fatal pandemic. Those crucial days should have been used to provide basic and essential information about ways to stop the disease spreading widely. However, it was only in March that the government took action. And even this was poorly coordinated.
Now, two months after the implementation of large-scale social restrictions in a number of regions, the Covid-19 task force has announced that there are at least 25,000 coronavirus cases across Indonesia with at least 1.520 deaths. The increase in new cases per day is still in the 600.
At first glance this data does not seem as bad as the predictions by the Bandung Institute of Technology’s (ITB) Center for Mathematical Modeling and Simulation released at the end of March. Without any efforts to control the spread, they predicted there would be 60,000 Covid-19 cases in Indonesia by May, with 2,000 new cases every day. With limited availability of swab tests, we cannot be certain whether the ITB Modeling Center predictions are right or wrong. The inconsistency in contract tracing means the control of the pandemic is less than optimal. With such a small amount of testing, the Covid-19 curve in Indonesia has not yet flattened.
In the midst of all this, the government has introduced the new normal concept. The cries of businesses who are in financial dire straits due to falling income, along with the perilously depleted state coffers, are bound to have added to the pressure for this policy. Although the government has repeatedly insisted that public health will not be sacrificed simply to get the economy moving, the facts on the ground show things are not that simple.
The lack of proper and comprehensive test data will make it more difficult for the government’s proposal to implement open-close policy for the economy based on the epidemic reproduction number (R0). The long delay between taking samples from patients and announcing test results is another challenge. Laboratories say they are overwhelmed because of the lack of chemical reagents for test equipment and limited funds. Although it looks good on paper, without solid data to back it, good coordination between institutions and a responsive bureaucracy, this policy will face problems.
President Jokowi does not have many options. Transparency and honesty are the best policy during a crisis like this. There is no point in covering up a bad state of affairs, because information technology has now made it more difficult to keep secrets like this. However, with openness, the people will be empowered because they will have the information to take the right decisions. The rise and fall of the Covid-19 curve in each area and the degree of validity of all data must be published.
As a result, we are now facing an unpleasant reality. It is too late for the government to choose between saving the economy or public health. Ultimately, although we are about to enter the new normal period, the government should continue to improve the way it is responding to the pandemic. Stepping up testing, comprehensive contact tracing and treatment of those who are sick are unavoidable responsibilities of the government during this pandemic. The threat of a second wave can be avoided if everybody is cautious and does not act rashly.
Covid-19 means that everything will have to change. Adaptation will not be easy and will demand many sacrifices. The government should not make the already difficult situation even worse by adopting the wrong policies. Muzzling criticism, stifling dissent and deploying the military to discipline the public in crowded places clearly endangers democracy and civil supremacy. The public must never feel that the price for overcoming this pandemic is too high for us to bear together.