The rich man, the poor man: In the mind of the Spokesperson for the Covid-19 Task Force

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Bhima Yudhistira Researcher at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (INDEF)

 IO – The assertion at the end of the statement made by Covid-19 Spokesman Achmad Yurianto during a live broadcast (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana – “BNPB”), Friday (27/03/2020) supposed to deliver a message of solidarity: “The rich protect the poor so that the poor can live decently, and the poor protect the rich by keeping the disease from spreading.” The final phrase, however, actually sparked a heated debate: “Is it true that the poor is the source of Covid-19?” 

In fact, no. This is a class-biased idea that we must refute objectively. The Covid-19 virus has spread globally simply because of human mobility and interpersonal contact. Simply and logically, one of the main sources of human contact is travel, especially between cities and countries. Can the poor afford to across the globe? Note that this is a rhetorical question. After all, a “poor” person is defined as a person who earns less than the minimum level of wages a month, i.e. less than IDR 440,000.00. It would be really miraculous if a poor person could afford to go as far as China even before the spread of Covid-19. Even the cheapest plane ticket to China costs IDR 4.5 million for a single trip, let alone round trip and visa cost and other necessary expenses. For the poor, who are always uncertain whether or not they can eat on any given day, who frequently rely on welfare from the Government, social foundations and generous individuals, it would never occur to them to book a pricey flight on Garuda Indonesia! 

In fact, Garuda Indonesia’s own boss clearly stated that it was noteworthy that when at-risk countries like Singapore limited flights and implemented quarantines for incoming foreign citizens, many flights to that country were fully booked! It’s highly likely that the Covid-19 Spokesman and his assistants did not check for information with Garuda Indonesia, as their view of the spread of the virus failed to include any interpretation of social class-based data. It’s obvious that the spread is caused by urban middle to upper classes citizens, who love to travel, can afford to travel, and tend to disobey the injunction to stay home and not go anywhere. 

Nationally, 57%, or 598 of the 1,046 people declared positive for Covid-19, were diagnosed in DKI Jakarta (27/03/2020). Note that the poverty rate of Jakarta is only 3.42%. Say that the poor shouldn’t infect the rich? Isn’t it the other way around? It’s the rich who committed the sin of catching the virus on their foreign holidays and infected the poor! 

Obviously the class logic is totally reversed and this is the wrong way to view “solidarity among citizens”. The reason why Covid-19 invaded Indonesia is the first place was the elites – the officials and socialites who travel abroad for pleasure and leisure! The Covid-19 Spokesman might have said that “The rich should have been more careful when they traveled, since they were the ones who brought this virus into Indonesia, but it can’t be helped. At least they now should stop travelling and getting more infected and spreading the virus further. Have mercy on the poor – they already have enough trouble without having the rich hurt them further with the disease!” 

Unfortunately, the Government’s strategies for taking care of Indonesia’s poor, in view of this disease, are based on topsy-turvy logic. For example, the first package of economic stimulus is too high up the ivory tower to help: it was seriously proposed to offer flight discounts and offer funds to internet influencers. In the second package, there are simply so many fiscal incentives provided to large companies. Before Covid-19 was even heard of, the Government provided IDR 221 trillion in fiscal incentives from tax expenditures. Even though such incentives do little to move the needle towards new job opportunities or industry growth, most of the rich factory owners enjoyed the break. 

The third package shows a bit of raised awareness on the part of the Government. However, its implementation is a right mess. The President’s request to delay credit payments for a year was warmly welcomed by electronic transportation workers and micro, small, and medium businesses. However, it would be a disaster for leasing companies. Their offices and those of banks are being raided by customers who demand technical implementation of the presidential injunction. This causes a lot of confusion, as neither the Financial Service Authority (Otoritas Jasa Keuangan – “OJK”) as an institution or their officials in the field have been properly briefed about this measure. In other words, even when there is an expression of goodwill to help the lower classes, it’s really of no use, as the implementation is not properly thought through. 

Other countries have been busy with measures for showing solidarity with their citizens from the top down. For example, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has donated 30% of his pay to the cause. The Government of Singapore also voluntarily suffered pay cuts in order to assist medical workers. Recently, the Government of Malaysia donated two months’ pay to add to the Covid-19 fund. It’s worth pointing out that our officials, presidential expert staff, the Boards of Directors and Commissioners of State-Owned companies, and members of our Parliament have not done the same, while rough calculation data from the Alliance of the People’s Movement (Aliansi Rakyat Bergerak) show that the total amount of money collected from wages, benefits, and tantiem (profit shares) of State-Owned Enterprise staff and officials is IDR 5.3 trillion a year. If just 50% of this amount were to be deducted, the State would get an extra IDR 2.65 trillion. Such funds could be used for distribution of necessities for citizens, Universal Basic Income for informal workers, and for maintaining the purchasing power of workers who are vulnerable towards dismissal. 

The Covid-19 Spokesman’s erroneous thinking is just the tip of the iceberg revealing the Government’s class-biased way of thinking. This iceberg contains a lot of hidden gaps. “Covid-19 merely unveils existing gaps,” said British journalist Owen Jones in his sharp article, “We’re about to learn a terrible lesson from coronavirus: inequality kills”, in The Guardian

The working class, previously already hurt by a slowdown of the economy, is smacked again right where it hurts with the spread of Covid-19. The desperate cries of online motorcycle drivers and taxi drivers in the suburbs of Jakarta underline the stark message that the rich would never actually consider them equal for solidarity. The public kitchens in Yogyakarta are initiated and managed by middle-class youngsters and participating average citizens. On the other hand, the Government is busy calculating the tax bonuses to be granted to major companies, whose profits would most probably leave Indonesia, perhaps to the source of Covid-19. Thank you, Mr. Achmad Yuniarto, for opening our eyes to the truth of the existing social gaps in this country.