Mitigating COVID-19K, anticipating worst-case scenario

Sudaryono General Secretary of Garudayaksa Nusantara Cooperative

IO – COVID-19, the Corona Virus Disease-2019, is a global viral pandemic. It is a new type of virus that has never emerged until it was found in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, in December 2019. It spread widely throughout the country, moving out from China to infect other East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. It spread further to Singapore and a small part of Europe and the United States between December 2019 to February 2020. 

In mid-March 2020, China announced a lockdown; closing all access and strictly obliging its citizens to remained at home for nearly 2 months has yielded results, before declaring success in mitigating COVID-19, marked with visits made by its President Xi Jinping. China reported 80,754 infections with 60,000 recoveries and 3136 deaths. 

When China succeeded in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 virus and recovered in mid-March, WHO announced that the pandemic had hit Europe with Italy as the country with the biggest infection rate, at 92,472 cases and the highest death rate at 10.8% of infected patients. In Indonesia, as announced by the Ministry of Health in its progress report, the first cases occurred in 2 March 2020. On that date, President Jokowi announced that the first 2 patients identified as infected with COVID-19 were found. The spread of this virus in Indonesia is extremely rapid: official information from the COVID-19 WhatsApp service provided by the Government per Saturday, 4 April 2020, recorded 2,092 positive cases, with 150 recoveries and 191 deaths. Indonesia currently has the second highest COVID-related death rate after Italy at 8.9%. This is truly a cause of concern for us all. 

Conversation in social media shows that netizens comment extensively on the disease – starting from expressions of disappointment in the lack of the Government’s, in this case Ministry of Health’s, readiness in responding to the disease, to the pros and cons of total lockdown or regional lockdown policies. 

We need to remember that no positive Corona cases were diagnosed in Indonesia until 2 March 2020. In other words, Indonesia actually had sufficient time, i.e. about 2 months from the end of December 2019, when the disease was first discovered in Wuhan, until March 2020. This period could have been used for preparation and anticipation should the disease should spread rapidly and reach our country. Within this period, neighboring countries Singapore and Malaysia have already suffered from the virus, while Indonesia remained safe. If the two months had been properly used for preparing necessary measures, nowadays there should be no complaints of insufficient medical equipment and health facilities for handling COVID-19 patients. The death of doctors and medical workers infected by the patients that they treat is the grisly consequence of Indonesia’s weak preparation in facing the pandemic. 

China as a nation has proven to be successful in mitigating the disease, whether in terms of restricting the spread or in treating COVID-19 positive patients until they recovered. Best practice from China is the implementation of a total lockdown of its people, a method adopted by Italy in its mitigation of the pandemic. The Government of Italy is implementing the method amid rapid spread of the virus and its high death rate. 

What about Indonesia? Is Indonesia expending efforts to perform lockdown as in China, Italy, and other countries that have shown positive results by adopting this measure? What steps will the Government of Indonesia take if the virus does not show signs of abating? 

Anticipatory Measures 

Any step the Government takes would definitely be thought out and considered thoroughly, and would definitely be the best option among existing options. However, the Author is not here to discuss the Government’s short-term measures for mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. On the contrary, we seek to suggest the most important steps to be taken in facing our uncertain future, facing a lethal disease. The Author concludes that the Government should immediately take the following steps: 

1. Secure Medical Equipment and Medicine Supply for the People 

The world is still shaking because of the pandemic. Big or small; developed, developing, or underdeveloped; rich and poor – all of them have citizens who require sufficient medical equipment for treatment. The State needs to anticipate medical equipment and pharmaceutical production, and should forgo attempts to import from other countries, as they are also facing the same struggle as us. Unfortunately, it is true that 90% of materials for medicine and medical equipment production in Indonesia are imported. Therefore, the State Budget must be expended effectively in order for us to be able to mitigate the pandemic. 

Indonesia is a tropical country rich in biological resources. There is much research for the deployment of medicinal plants that thrive in Indonesian soil. With this viral disease disaster hitting us, the State must be present and support independent domestic production of medications using local biological materials based on our local wisdom. We also need to produce medical equipment, especially that related to the mitigation of COVID-19: Masks, leather gloves, personal protective equipment (PPE), and ventilators. We must be ready for worst-case scenarios. Every country in the world would naturally put their own national interests first. Relying on our existing budget, the Government must take drastic measures to improve the capacity of our pharmaceuticals and medical equipment factories, constructing new factories as necessary. 

2. Secure Food Reserves for the People 

The primary issue in possible long-term pandemic is securing food reserves for the people. Our national food reserves should at least be sufficient to ensure the lives of the people in such a difficult situation, as in the worst case, the pandemic will be prolonged. The Government must be available in order to maintain existing food reserves. We really need to make sure to know how long our food reserves are able to support the people’s needs. Therefore, the Government must ensure that food production centers, such as rice and crop centers, must be watched thoroughly to ensure the people that our Government has prepared sufficient food for us if the situation continues to worsen. 

An article from titled “Daily Memo: Emergency Fiscal Measures and Securing Food Supplies” explains how countries all over the world are adopting steps to secure their own food supplies amid concerns of reduced supply in the future. Kazakhstan announced a stoppage of food exports to United Economic countries and other non-Eurasia countries, while Kyrgyzstan fully stopped food exports and has reserved State budgets to purchase food products. Russia set a 10-day deadline for its grain exports, which ended on 30 March. There are also reports that Vietnam has refused to sign new rice export contracts and prefers to keep their rice reserves for domestic needs. 

Serbia has limited exports of certain of their domestic food products. In Europe, there are great concerns about the agricultural sector, especially relating to the ability to satisfy the labor requirement. France has requested its citizens who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic to consider working in agriculture, a movement called “agricultural patriotism” by their Minister of Agriculture. This shortfall is caused by restriction of regional lockdowns, which is worsened by the fact that seasonal workers from Northern Africa and Spain have returned to their homelands and are staying there for obvious reasons. In Germany, the Government has extended the duration of seasonal work permits from 70 days to 115 days, and have released workers from having to pay social security fees in order to keep their 300,000 seasonal agricultural workers. There is also increasing concern for the safety of workers in food processing business and their availability to cope with harvests, which will soon increase in South America. 

In short, there is no other way: Indonesia must be willing and able to produce its own food independently. To repeat: This is not a choice, but a necessity. The people need food even more than they need medicine and health services, especially during hard times like now. Sufficient supply of food can become the Government’s social safety net for the people.

The National Development Planning Agency (Badan Perencanaan Pembangunan Nasional – “Bappenas”) notes that the Government currently controls about 16.6 million ha of forest area that can be converted and leased in order to mitigate fait accompli control and use of forest area lands (TORA, IPPKH, fait accompli, forest amnesty, etc.). These lands have a great potential for use to grow life-support and life-enhancing crops, whether for food or energy. In this case of force majeure, the Government through food sector SOEs must be able to make use of these lands for the purpose of national food production. 

The Government must also perform drastic action for securing food for the difficult days ahead. There is no certainty on how long the pandemic will last. Therefore, allocating budget effectively, especially in order to secure food for the people for the next year or two, is crucial. No matter what the condition may be in the future, the people must have sufficient food to last for a long while. 

3. Securing Energy Reserves for the People 

Similar with food and medicine, sufficient energy must be available for the people. This is a crucial issue: How can we ensure that there is sufficient fuel and energy for the people while the State is highly dependent on imports all these years? 

One possible solution is converting our palm coconut production into biofuel that can cover the minimum fuel need of our people during the pandemic. The Government may alternatively encourage the use of its 16 million Ha of land for covering food and energy needs by converting them for planting crops that can be processed into both food biofuel, such as cassava and corn. Furthermore, these plants can be harvested within a short period of time. They can ensure the availability of national renewable energy in the future. Basically, our large amounts of land along the Equator, with its year-long sunshine, is Indonesia’s true wealth. Adam Smith is right: “The real wealth is land.” 

The Government needs to make clear with thorough anticipation of the continuation of the current condition in the future. We need to cover the essential minimum needs of the people during this prolonged pandemic. As long as these three basic necessities – sufficient medical service, medical equipment and medicine; food; and energy – are available for the people, we can ensure that our nation will last for a long time yet.

By implementing policies oriented to these three issues, we can also generate multiplier effects that affect the economy in the future. If we really take the opportunity afforded by this viral pandemic disaster to reorganize our strategic policies in health, food, and energy from now, we can ensure the people’s prosperity and welfare for the long term. Perhaps this is the silver lining in the cloud of the pandemic disaster that is slamming into Indonesia. If we remain oblivious, we will continue to live a life of scarcity. We will continue to provide less than optimal service to the people, which will cost us the lives of our citizens. 

Organizing Life After the Pandemic 

Just like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1997 economic crisis, and the fall of the great American financial firm Lehman Brothers in 2008, the COVID-19 is a phenomenon that will change the face of the world once it is conquered. As described above, the COVID-19 virus has a relatively low death rate compared to other viruses in the corona family, such as MERS. However, COVID-19 has such a rapid spread rate that it has become a global pandemic that has infected more than 950,000 people in 207 countries in the world within a mere two months. It is this spread rate that triggers global panic. This condition has forced the world to “rest”. Furthermore, the psychological condition, economic relations, to the influence of superpower countries in global geopolitics are also predicted to shift as follows: 

1. Shift of Power Balance from West to East, and Nationalistic Egotism 

M. Walt’s analysis of global foreign policy concludes that the pandemic will accelerate the shift of power balance from West to East. South Korea, Japan, and Singapore have responded properly to the spread of the virus. China, which started on the wrong foot, has succeeded in suppressing and controlling the spread of the virus, and has succeeded in healing positive patients as well. On the other hand, the West – i.e. Europe and America – is slow to respond and seems to be overwhelmed in mitigating the virus. This is a great stain on the reputation of the West, forcing the world to be more influenced by the East of Asia than the West in the future. 

Furthermore, the pandemic has increased the level of nationalism and egotism of the world, as each country attempts to protect its own national interests. As described above, global countries have shown a marked prioritization of their national interest in the use of their resources, whether medical, food, or energy. This condition is predicted to continue even after the pandemic is over, and encourages the world to reduce openness, access towards resources, and freedom towards themselves. 

2. End of Globalization as We Know It 

Robin Niblett’s analysis of global foreign policy concludes that the world will not return to the way it was once the pandemic is over. The trade relations and patterns that we know, which are based on globalization and mutual benefit, will never return to the way they were. All countries in the world will be carried away by remnants of protectionism for the sake of individual national interest. All decisions will be made based on the ability to satisfy domestic needs. The reduced openness in attitude will encourage all countries to become more independent and reduce, and if possible, eliminate, their dependence on other countries when satisfying the needs of their people. 

3. Prioritizing Stability over Profits 

The pandemic has destroyed the basic patterns and principles in governing global production. The Government’s tendency to be more closed than before the pandemic will encourage an opposing response from the business world: They will prioritize the sustainability and stability of business over large profits. They will prioritize guaranteed stability from the domestic market instead of chasing over extended profits in the global market. 

Shannon K. O’Neil’s analysis of foreign policy concludes that Government intervention in industry will increase, in order to encourage business strategies to ensure sufficient domestic supply and reserve. Again, this will reduce profit levels, but increase supply stability. 

4. Positive Impact of the Pandemic 

The pandemic has restored the role of the Government, i.e. to take overall great control of the situation. Even in the most liberal of countries, the Government is the mainstay of the citizens as they fight the virus. Cooperation between countries in this fight might happen due to the spirit of unity and humanity in response to the future development of the virus. Heads of State have taken the initiative to hold teleconferences with each other for this purpose. For example, the Prime Minister of India has initiated online meetings with other leaders in South Asia. President Donald Trump of America has confirmed through his official Twitter account that he has initiated “constructive” conversations with President of China Xi Jinping. It can still swing the other way: the pandemic might actually reduce political and trade tensions between these countries in the future, generating a better balance of power. 

No matter what prediction made by analysts, no matter what speculations we make, the Author believes that Indonesia as a sovereign country must still be ready for the worst. The minimum essential need of available medical, food, and energy supplies is non-negotiable.