THE CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK: This is what the government needs to do next

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(Photo: IO/M Aslam Iqbal)

IO – As a person who has worked for MSF Médicine Sans Frontieres Indonesia, an international non-profit organization based in Belgium which focuses on humanitarian causes, mainly concerning health issues, I have deep concern over the handling of Covid-19 by the Indonesian government. Not a single person has ever imagined that something like this could possibly happen, before the outbreak of Covid-19. The virus spread is massive, crossing national borders, national interests, ideology, political alliances and race. Moving from country to country. 

The number of cases of infection, which is the primary cause of Covid-19, continues to increase in several countries. The acceleration rate of the outbreak, be it for the number of infection cases, death-rates, or cured-rates, varies from person to person in each region. Each country also has its own policy to impede the spread of the virus occuring in its area. According to data from John Hopkins University which I quote, until Monday night (3/23), the total number of Covid-19 cases worldwide has reached 331,273, with 14,450 recorded deaths, and 97,847 patients declared cured. 

The highest number of cases is still recorded in China, which is 81,397 cases, followed by Italy with 59,138 cases, and the US with 33,073 cases. In terms of the numbers of deaths, the largest recorded number is in Italy with 5,476 cases. That number exceeds the death rate that occurred in China, which is 3,265. 

In Indonesia, as this article is written, there are 790 cases, a number which continues to grow every day. Day by day, the state’s unpreparedness in handling emergency situations is increasingly apparent. The limitations faced by medical staff in handling Covid-19 patients are clearly visible. That’s really an unfortunate situation, when we should’ve been able to take lessons from countries that have already been infected, but Indonesia seemingly discounted the strength of the virus. On several occasions, they even seem to deny the statements of international experts and scientists who have urged Indonesia to be aware in facing the Coronavirus outbreak. 

I still remember some of the events, but the one that struck me was when Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, provided information which was released in February (12/2) and was quoted by several media outlets. The release revealed his research on the existence of a Covid-19 outbreak in Indonesia, which was soon denied by the Minister of Health. I think it’s tragic that a world-renowned Epidemiologist who willingly shared crucial research information regarding an outbreak was not taken seriously by policy makers of the Republic. Such goodwill was even seemingly disputed by the government, with various questionable statements like the creation of a vaccine from Ginger, Cat Rice and Wild horse milk. In the context of the Coronavirus outbreak, if only the statements of the experts were not ignored, then today we wouldn’t be seeing so many medical staff trying so hard to cover the state’s unpreparedness in providing the necessary medical equipment and gear, by turning plastic bags into PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). Requests for assistance uploaded on the social media by various General Hospitals, which lately has been abundant, also indicates that the state is not effectively present in handling health emergencies in the country. 

However, as a person who has studied the science of defense, of course I feel a calling to speak about this matter at hand. With all our power and efforts, we need to mobilize every ounce of capabilities that this nation has for the war on this plague, without blaming each other and keep working together as one. A few weeks ago, I recall the words of the late Prof. Bantarto Bandoro in the post-graduate lecture room of the University of Defense. He often said that an epidemic was a threat that needed to be handled specifically and not just done with a single nation’s effort; it could only be overcome together, both on a regional and global scale. 

Academics and practitioners certainly have a variety of points of views and ways of thinking about how powerful this Coronavirus outbreak is, which makes it a serious threat to the nation. The outbreak is undoubtedly a threat against the defense and security of this Republic. It is time for Indonesia to realign and fix the current condition, in which we are pressed between a global economic crisis and the problem of the spreading of the Covid-19 virus. We must have self-disclosure and transparency stating all SOPs that must be carried out in this situation, in accordance to WHO standards, and we must continue to make serious efforts in handling the spread of the virus. 

This global outbreak is nothing new. The world has seen various outbreaks before, including acute respiratory tract syndrome – SARS, Ebola, meningitis, bird flu, and HIV. In the future, we must be ready to face outbreaks that may occur at any given time. Indonesia needs to handle Covid-19 seriously, decisively and take any necessary steps and make any efforts as soon as possible. Many experts have assessed the steps of Indonesia, considered as slow and lacking in dealing with this threat. This, of course, needs special attention, as stated by Barry Buzan in his book People, States and Fear which is the forerunner of the development of security studies: it provides an explanation of what is defined as “non-traditional security threats”. 

The Covid-19 attack was not a military invasion like World War II or The Gulf War, but rather a pandemic where no country is free from the threat, where any country can’t decide to be neutral or anti-war. Saudi Arabia might have never imagined that they had to close the Nabawi Mosque and the Masjidil Haram. The Coronavirus plague is increasingly worrying day by day. The States enact a lockdown system, which is the way the state carries out mass quarantine on all its citizens to reduce the spread of the virus. Saudi Arabia Government applied a temporary lockdown policy to prevent the Coronavirus spread. Not only that, the pilgrimage and Umrah were also temporarily closed, which reportedly means the city of Mecca is now empty of visitors. 

In France, people are afraid to go to the general election polling booths; this effectively disrupts both political legitimacy and the mechanism of democracy. French Prime Minister Macron feels the need to remind French citizens to keep going to the voting booths, as it is as important as shopping for primary necessities; every activity other than what is necessary must be stopped for awhile during the lockdown policy. According to some, a lockdown policy may be contradictory to the phenomenon of globalization which has practically made everything transparent and borderless. The world now seems to begin to understand the use of repressive ways, because rapid globalization is also why the spread of disease is more quickly and fierce. 

Coronavirus outbreak has forced several governments to implement policies that appear to be repressive, in order to carry out effective decisions, especially when facing the increasingly difficult task of controlling mobility and the migration of the residents in this era of globalization; consider what the US government has done in the face of this crisis. In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic even has implications on American-Chinese relations, American-European Union, European-Italian Union, and others. 

At present, the Coronavirus epidemic in Italy is the worst hit in the world. An exponential pattern occurred in Covid-19 cases in Italy, after weeks of zero action to impede this oncoming crisis. These conditions have also occurred repeatedly in western countries, starting from Spain, France, Germany, Britain, to the US. Now, world leaders have taken the necessary steps that they did not take in a timely manner berfore. They have isolated ten million people from Berlin to Madrid and San Francisco, and spent huge amounts of funds on rescue plans. Faster steps should be able to prevent a surge in the number of cases currently experienced by many countries. There are noticeable differences in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore’s steps, which confirmed their first case before Europe. They acted earlier and quickly. Therefore, all three countries have only a single digit number of deaths, even as the number of reported cases has reached hundreds. Taiwan, where the vice president is an expert epidemiologist, began tracking passengers arriving from Wuhan immediately after China gave a warning of a new type of pneumonia in December last year. This step is followed by social distancing, increased testing, research and contact tracking. Meanwhile, western countries tended not to do much at the beginning of the outbreak besides developing simple testing capacities. 

According to Professor Steve Taylor of the University of British Columbia, the challenges faced by governments are whether they must act and when they must act in the face of health threats. If a country acts quickly and the plague is not that threatening, then the government will be criticized for overreacting. However, if the country waits and moves slowly, the government will be criticized for not being reactive enough. 

There are countries which initially have a fast spread rate like South Korea, which at one time was the country with the highest number of infections outside of China. However, this country managed to control the plague through rigorous testing and meticulous contact tracking of those infected. After that, the infection simmered down, and it stabilized even as the plague spread throughout Europe. The ability of South Korea is inseparable from their previous experience of the Coronavirus outbreak, namely MERS in 2015, and SARS in 2002 to 2003. This outbreak also affected Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other regions. 

These pandemic diseases, including Ebola, touched almost all Western countries. It is stated by Taylor, who is also the author of the book The Psychology of Pandemics. According to him, people are not very good at estimating risk. They tend to be trapped in wishful thinking, overestimating resources, and other factors that can obscure risk assessments. This is what might occur during a pandemic. 

According to Ashley Arabasadi, Chairman of the Health Security Policy Advisor for Management Sciences and Health and former Chair of the Global Health Security Agenda Consortium, we can learn from past mistakes, and South Korea is a very strong example of that, if you look at the numbers of the tests they have done, and how promptly they can mobilize. 

Furthermore, Laura Spinney, a science journalist whose latest book is Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, says that we should have used the time (in January and February) wiser, but, to be fair, everyone deals with unknown things. Initially maybe the authorities did not want to appear overly panicking in that situation, she said, but then the balance shifted, and it is then known that the biggest danger is not panic, but a false feeling of security; and in the future, like suggested by Laura, we shouldn’t just forget the tragic lessons from this crisis. The government needs to invest in a healthcare system, so that when the next pandemic arrives, they can be better prepared. It is not an easy matter handling the Coronavirus outbreak. Beside the role of the state, a non-state role is needed in handling this plague. Non-state actors who have transnational influence, like Bill Gates and Jack Ma, along with voluntary global humanitarian action have provided extraordinary support for their respective countries. 

In Indonesia, lockdown as a solution, or even as simplier as social distancing becomes a sensitive matter, and almost immediately the grass root class become reactive to this policy. Like what happened during the presidential election: the people became irrational and locked in a political struggle, they no longer push to seek solutions for human security more effectively, when in my opinion humanity is above all. 

The government should be able to take actions more quickly. The wellbeing of the people is more important than personal interest or the interest of party politics . Covid-19 will not cherry pick who its victims are, whether they are supporters of the government or the opposition group. The public seems still unable to understand that human security has become a global issue in the study of international relations after the appearance of Buzan’s work. They are trapped by the Anies and Jokowi’s feud, which should have been over, but it continues because of the development of the increased sectarianism issues. Limited lockdown, whether it’s independent or voluntary, is needed for a country as large as Indonesia with a high level of population and density count. By knowing this we can understand why the World Health Organization (WHO) previously, was extremely concerned of the government’s steps which they considered to be slow and amateurish.

The worst implications of the Covid-19 attack on Indonesia have yet to emerge. In China it seems that the impact of the outbreak is now under control. Meanwhile, in the world of medicinal science, the fight over studies and research continues, as they fight over recognition and patent rights of who’ll successfully come out with the anti-Covid-19 vaccine. This is not merely a fight of superior human resources between countries, but it also concerns the source of funding and emergency funds that are available to overcome the outbreak.

All countries must be prepared to face huge economic losses, including China. America alone as the biggest capitalist country of the world, is ready to close down Las Vegas, which never sleeps. Meanwhile Indonesia is still stuttering to respond to complex emergencies caused by Covid-19, due to the government’s limitations in understanding the non-traditional security threats in todays era of international relations. Chaos and panic do not need to erupt if people have an understanding of the pandemic as an issue of today’s global security. In relation to the economic situation in Indonesia, perhaps it is a statement of incompetence by blaming the Coronavirus or it is indeed the Indonesian economy that has faltered, with the weakening of the Rupiah to the Dollar at Rp.16.000, suffers from its own doing. 

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said that the Ministry of Finance has created a number of scenarios related to the current economic situation, as Indonesia is hit by the Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak. If the impact of this virus carries on over the next three to six months, the worst-case scenario will occure. In fact, she stated that economic growth could drop from 2.5 to 0 percent, in an online press conference after a Closed Meeting on Monetary and Fiscal Policy Facing the Economy Impacts of the Covid-19 Global Pandemic that was held in Jakarta last Friday, March 20, 2020. It makes sense that International trade falls below 30 percent, and airlines are down by 75 percent. However, this is only the deepest scenario they’re in. 

In the most moderate scenario, Indonesia’s economic growth will remain above 4 percent. Sri Mulyani’s statement was revealed in the middle of the the Rupiah exchange rate dropping to IDR.16,000 per US dollar, and the 

 Composite Stock Price Index (IHSG) which fell to the 4,000 level. On the other hand, the number of Coronavirus-positive patients in Indonesia continues to rise, in my opinion it will be better for the government to focus on handling Coronaviruses first rather than giving out incentives to various business sectors. The problem is, the number of the fiscal incentives released will not affect the number of Coronavirus cases which increasingly booms on a day-to-day basis.

The big picture is, if the number of people infected with the Coronavirus goes down in the near future, the public’s concern will also lessen. Thus, people will begin to dare to leave the house. Shopping Centers again will become crowded with consumers. Employees will return to work and back to the office, companies will operate normally and restaurants or food stalls on the street will also be busy again, because, at this time, it is important for the government to pay attention to the economic activity of the small businesses that are proven to drive the economy of the lower class.

President Jokowi himself has decided not to do an area quarantine or lockdown, in anticipation of the spread of the Coronavirus. The President mentioned the culture and discipline of the people as a factor in the decision. “Every country has a different character, culture and discipline. Therefore, we choose not to lockdown and I’ve conducted studies about that,” Jokowi said in the President’s Directives to all the Governors Facing Covid-19 video conference, Jakarta, Tuesday (3/24).

Jokowi said that he had studied policies in each of the countries concerning their handling of the Coronavirus; the studies came from the knowledge accumulated by Indonesian ambassadors in their respective countries. The government has also analyzed the impact of each policy in these countries. By judging people’s conditions, the former Mayor of Solo assessed the policy of maintaining physical distance or physical distancing is the right choice. This needs to be followed by strong discipline and firmness of the community.

Let the public be the judge of the variety of different views from the stakeholders of the republic. However, it is not those differences that I want to state, but what is the solution in face of the ongoing war. The progress of weaponry technology in the industrial revolution 4.0 has shown us that the new world’s reality demands a progressive reform of thinking about national defense policy. Securitization requires the state to be proactive in defining various forms of new threats.

In an era of globalization, war is marked by the thin lines between war and politics, combatants and civilians, conflict and peace, battlefield and security. Hammes argues that the latest weaponry is not only limited to weapons of mass destruction, however there are also new kinds of weapons developed with the new term: “weapon of mass disruption”. Modern warfare as a result of the transformation of the fourth-generation war is not only limited to weaken the strength of the opposing armed forces, but also to create internal chaos on a large scale, simply by presenting manufactured fear, concern and anxiety for an adversary’s citizens. This term is similar to terrorism or asymmetrical warfare. The use of weaponry technology has now begun to rely on the so-called biological weapons, through use of microorganisms in the form of spreading disease, dangerous viruses, nuclear radiation, deadly chemicals as the weapon for warfare. The use of these biological weapons results in human or animal casualties, and damage to plants or material by using toxic properties of chemicals in large quantities. The Ministry of Defense itself must begin to pay attention to various possibilities of the modern forms of war which relate to the use of biologically-designed weapons, which are intended to destroy the population either by spreading disease or, more generally, killing many people through mass destruction. Reflecting from the Coronavirus phenomenon, it proves that “Mass disruption” as a method, target, and goal certainly creates difficulties for any medical health team to defend against the attack. Based on the results and the damaging impact arising from the likely use of biological weapons in modern warfare, it will require a transformation or countermeasure innovation, or a way that is certainly different from conventional war.

Thus, concerns over modern warfare through various advances in biological weaponry technology demand the government, or specifically The Ministry of Defense, to prepare a special strategy in dealing with the effects of damage and chaos created by modern warfare. Modern warfare rightly will become one of the specific references for the state in preparing special forces that are trained to prevent, overcome and even minimize impacts and threats. There is a possibility that something is happening behind the emergence of the phenomenon the Coronavirus outbreak.

The focus of national defense currently faced by the Ministry of Defense must also consider the target of the attack, which is not just attacking humans directly but also used to incapacitate a country’s economy by spreading disease outbreaks in animals and plants which consequently will have an impact on the environment and humans.

The US, through “Biodefense for the 21st Century”, should become Indonesia’s consideration in determining national interests as a strategic foundation in dealing with environmental developments strategy which had warned the world about the threat of war through the use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. 

Meanwhile, one of the main instruments as a countermeasure, steps that can be calculated so far are 400,000 active personnel in the Indonesian National Army (TNI), 470,700 Police of the Republic of Indonesia (POLRI), 33,500 General Medical Doctors; 105,147 Nurses. Based on those numbers alone we can conclude that for every 1 National Army personnel/ Policeman there are 573 residents that they should protect, and for every 1 Doctor/Nurse there are 1,944 residents that they should serve.

The dynamics in these cases have led to suggestions and the idea, which I think needs to be prepared, namely a national biodefense strategy by the Ministry of Defense which includes the development, implementation and/or renewal that is contemporary and innovative. This needs to be done to identify all levels of policy by maximizing the role of forming civil-military cooperation in the biodefense field. This is done to further clarify the parameters of military support to the civil authorities in response to this Coronavirus epidemic attack.

Synergy between government institutions need to pay attention to several important factors, including:

1. The government must be honest and transparent about matters related to the spread of the Coronavirus, including opening access to information to the fullest extent to the public about the points of spread of the Coronavirus in Indonesia. Some countries have done that, including Italy. Silence doesn’t help to reduce the public’s panic. In uncertain situations, transparency is a decisive factor.

2. The Central Government must act clearly and decisively, even setting a deadline if necessary. In doing so, the government can take steps to reduce the percentage of Coronavirus spread to prevent a peak outbreak in May 2020, which is based on an analysis conducted by the National Intelligence Agency (BIN).

3. The Central Government must synergize with regional leaders in order to be able to align policies regarding the most urgent issues. This is necessary because it will affect other related policies.

4. The Central Government needs to prioritize national public health safety and no longer focus solely on national economic development, by anticipating the entry of the Coronavirus from airports and harbors.

5. The government needs to collaborate with private hospitals if health care facilities and infrastructure are less common in Indonesian regions.

6. The government needs to increase socialization and education to the community to conduct a Coronavirus check for those who have traveled abroad, within a certain time limit.

7. The government should open themselves to the international world, and be proactive in responsive efforts against the spread of the Coronavirus which has been determined as a disaster to a global pandemic which needs special treatment and integrated cooperation from countries all over the world.

8. The government needs to consider the active role of various non-state actors who helped in the handling of the pandemic virus disaster.

At the very least we don’t need to blame each other and we need to trust the commander who will spearhead our fight in this war, who was designated by President Jokowi to the Head of the Management Disaster Agency, Doni Monardo, who constantly reminds the people to be disciplined and to follow government directives in preventing the spread of the Coronavirus. We must be sure that Indonesia can survive this pandemic if we can stay united and work together as a whole.

Although Doni was appointed when the war was underway, with his experience and personal abilities, and among the limitations of equipment available, this will also become one of the tests for all the nation’s components to join shoulder to shoulder in the war against the Coronavirus.  (Septiawan M.Si)

Septiawan S.S., M.Si is a media analyst at the Information and Data Center of the Defense Ministry. He majored in Defense Diplomacy at the Faculty of Defense Strategy, at the Indonesia Defense University (UNHAN). He holds a Bachelor degree in language,from the Faculty of letters, English Dept. Universitas Nasional, following in 2007 he attended ANTARA Institute where he studied Journalism. He writes for the Independent Observer.