Lock us down, but make sure we get help

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Irawan Ronodipuro INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – When Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan recently announced his new partial lockdown policy for the capital city, barely a few hours passed before politicians started weighing in. Some believed his reinstating a lockdown was not necessary and would only hurt the economy. Others praised his move, mirroring President Jokowi’s statement that public health should be the government’s main priority. 

We concur with the president. Indonesia has already seen more than 8,000 people die from the Covid-19 virus. Infection and mortality rates have reached dangerously high leveis, and with Jakarta being the epicenter, it is especially critical to impose large-scale social restrictions. Not doing so would risk Jakarta’s healthcare system collapsing–isolation rooms and intensive care units at Covid-19 referral hospitals are 80 percent occupied. If there were no lockdown, then beds would run out within a matter of weeks. Many more people would needlessly become sick, or become yet another fatality. 

Meanwhile, the West Java government has moved in a similar direction, implementing ‘micro-scale social restrictions’ in the satellite cities of Bogor, Depok and Bekasi. Such a policy is necessary as well to contain the spread at the local community level. Equally important, for people commuting between the satellite cities and Jakarta, strict health protocols will be in place to ensure that the virus is not being brought into the capital by day workers. 

So far, so good. But several important policy issues remain unaddressed. 

One is economics. Many Indonesians are rightly wondering how they can survive yet another lockdown. While white collar professionals and others in the formal sector can rely upon savings and social assistance to have enough cash to feed their families and pay the monthly bills, it is an entirely different story for low-paid informal workers who live from their earnings by the day and don’t have access to help coming from the government. 

The national government has already been harshly criticized for having not been able to disburse enough money to those who needed it the most during the first lockdown. If the bottleneck is not solved this time around, then people will start once again being evicted from their residences and find it difficult to feed themselves and their families. 

Another relates to the length of the lockdown. Many medical professionals believe a second lockdown has become necessary only because the first lockdown was lifted prematurely. A cursory glance at the experiences of other countries would suggest they are right. 

 But here’s the point: if people are starving, how can the government possibly sustain a lockdown without risking social disturbances, more crime or protest? 

The solution is pretty straightforward. To contain the virus and lower infection rates so Indonesia escapes a public health disaster, there is no getting around the fact that prolonged lockdowns may be the only viable path forward. But it also means we have to get the economics right: when the government forces people to stay home, it must be capable of delivering financial assistance for those in need. If not, then Indonesia runs the risk of going through a damaging cycle of lockdowns and re-openings while the virus continues to take lives. We need to get it right this time.