The war against Covid-19 pandemic: An urgent call for action

(Illustration: IO/Design Team)

Keeping both the people and the economy alive

IO – The streets are empty, no­body is out to buy. They are all afraid of the Coronavirus, said Sri (not her real name), who sells Kerak telor, (Egg crust, a traditional Betawi spicy om­elette dish which is considered a snack) on the sidewalk right in front of Bank BNI Jakarta Kota, not too far from the main en­trance of the Jakarta Kota Train Station.

Meanwhile, at the sidewalk of Sarinah Shopping Center along Jl.Jenderal Sudirman, an Ojek driver (taxi-motorbike) complains It’s been four hours in the waiting, and no passenger yet. “Usually even during Car Free Day like on Sunday, I get at least four passen­gers,” he said.

These two realities are exam­ples of the dilemma faced by cen­tral and local government to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. Should we save people’s lives or prioritize economic growth?

The meeting between Indone­sian Red Cross Chairman Jusuf Kalla (JK) and the Central Board of the Indonesian Chamber of Com­merce (Kadin), at Menara Kadin, Jakarta on Tuesday afternoon, March 17, 2020, was a very differ­ent ambience from dozens of pre­vious meetings held before. There was no laughter and humor spo­ken typically in a session with JK.

Dozens present at the meeting room, such as Kadin’s General Chairman, Rosan Roeslani, and Lippo Group owner James Tja­haya Ryadi, to mention few, ap­peared tense. The meeting was as though they were about to open Pandora’s box.

According to JK, there has been an increase in the numbers infect­ed by the Coronavirus. Up to 40 people per day. The number is the result of examining ten thousand people. What if 20 thousand peo­ple were to be examined. Then we may find even more and more infected. How would it be if in a month time? What JK had to say made sense.

The data shown from the Minis­try of Health as of March 17, 2020, 172 people in at least eight prov­inces were infected with Covid-19, even though ten days earlier only four people were reported ill with the virus.

It is widely suspected, that those infected are actually far more than can be detected. They roam about without realizing the harm, that they can transmit the vi­rus to those around them, through hand­shakes and other means.

The suspicions can be understood because the symptoms of an infection are similar to that of the com­mon cold. Additionally, detecting equipment is not suitable enough and its accuracy is questionable. Ironically, to find out the results of swab tests and mucus sam­pling in the respiratory tract takes at least three days. Mean­while, the person waiting for the test results is able to wonder around during the wait.

For those who have been de­clared infected with Corona are not given proper treatment. Re­ferral hospitals and public hospi­tals can no longer accommodate, due to shortages in the number of beds, ventilators, doctors, nurses, and others.

Imagine the impact of Covid-19 that has gone pandemic: The export-import process is slowing down, layoffs are loom­ing, purchasing power is declin­ing, productivity is in the decline, the banking and financial sectors are severely disrupted.

JK, nicknamed by “a man of action”, firmly stated that we don’t have much time, before more are infect­ed. It could be us in this room, our brothers, our sisters, our chil­dren or grand-children. We must act. Earlier on Tuesday morning, March 17, 2020, JK held a meet­ing with the Ambassadors of Chi­na and Japan, and he got a com­mitment that the two countries would help.

In the afternoon, a group of entrepreneurs are committed to donating two million masks to the Indonesian Red Cross. Not to be left out, JK said he will designate 1.5 million Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) volunteers in Java and Bali to act.

However, the movement hit a stumbling block. An executive of a private hospital said that his and as well as other hospitals would participate: “but please pay off the BPJS payment, which has al­ready been three to five months overdue”.

According to data, national gov­ernment debt to private and gov­ernment hospitals have reached IDR 10 trillion. The average debt to each hospital ranges from IDR 25 billion to IDR 50 billion, while debts to Muhammadiyah Hospi­tals amounted to IDR 1.2 trillion.

Breaking the chain
The policy of avoiding contact between humans (social distanc­ing) is to be implemented from March 15 – March 30, 2020 to break the chain of the spread in order to contain the virus. To implement it, schools are closed, the use of public transport is re­duced, vacation spots are closed, and state employees are ordered to work from home.

The same goes for employees in the private sector. Community members are advised not to be in crowds or join any gatherings. The distance between people is set to at least one meter. People must frequently wash hands with disinfec­tants. Shaking hands by bumping the fists is enough, and wearing masks is a must.

Social distancing relatively has an effect towards containing the virus, but the economic impact is also noteworthy. Sri, which is a reflection of hundreds of thou­sands and even millions of small vendors in many provinces, com­plained of losing customers.

What will happen if the policy of limiting human contact lasts two weeks or more? What if the government finally locks down a province, many provinces or at the end the entire country?

Brooking Institutions in one of its publications states that social distancing will have an impact on reducing econom­ic activity because people must stay at home and avoid crowds. This phenomenon affects the Lower-middle class throughout the United States, so they must obtain financial support so that purchasing power is maintained.

In Indonesia, the chances of a recession is high. According to the Minister of Finance Sri Muly­ani, the deficit of state income and expenditure could widen in the range of 2.2 to 2.5%, up from the previous estimate of 1.79% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The Finance Minister also indi­cated there will be an impact on the banking and finance sector. Both sectors are the “blood sup­ply” of the economy to a very large extent.

The Corona issue caused share trading in the Indonesia Stock Exchange to be repeatedly halted due to the Composite Stock Price Index (CSPI) dropped by five per­cent. If measured from January 2020 to March 17, 2020, the CSPI has fallen from around 6.405 to 4.456. The capitalization value of the CSPI has decreased by IDR 2,108.36 trillion. Foreign inves­tors net sales of nearly IDR 900 billion and are expected to in­crease. The Rupiah passes IDR 16,000 per US$ 1 or its weakest since 2018.

Antonius Joenoes Supit, the Deputy Chair of Kadin in charge of Human Resources and Indus­trial Relations, in an exclusive conversation last Monday, said the government had no choice but to save those who are sus­pected and those who are con­firmed to be infected.

The problem now is, are there facilities to accommodate the patients available or not? He claimed to be extremely sad­dened, that one of his executives is infected with the virus. He needs a ventilator, but the hos­pital does not have one. He now uses a oxygenated breathing ap­paratus. Referral hospitals can­not accommodate him because of their limited capacity. His wife can only cry.

Diplomatic efforts
Former Indonesian Ambassa­dor to the People’s Republic of China (2013-2017) Sugeng Ra­hardjo stated that Jusuf Kalla’s meeting with the Chinese Am­bassador to Indonesia is the right step, given China’s experience, expertise, and equipment needed to reduce the Corona outbreak.

Next, what the government needs to do is to congratulate Chi­na on its success in overcoming the Coronavirus outbreak. Then build direct communications be­tween government officials. When the situation is under control, en­force a policy to re-open commu­nications between businessmen of the two countries, investors and people to people.

In an exemplary manner, Singapor­ean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has spoken directly to the people of his nation twice in six weeks, in a live broadcast delivered directly from the Prime Minister’s Office, outlining details for the Singaporeans specif­ics of the government’s strategy and approach, facing the great threat of a spreading Coronavirus. He invited all components of the nation to work together for the sake of mutual safety and prosperity.

The first speech was delivered in English, while the second was in Malay. The tone was clear and the content neatly organized. His face changed. Sometimes he smiled, or casts a serious look. His arms were repeatedly moving. It is clear that Lee wanted to strengthen the meaning of every sentence he uttered.

In his second speech, Lee seemed intent to stress the consistency of his speech’s meaning with the delivery of the previous one. He stated, “Brothers and sisters, five weeks have passed since I talked about Covid-19 with you. We both hope that the epidemic will end soon…”

While in his first delivery, Lee emphasized his government’s plans for dealing with Covid-19, and ex­pressed his hope that the people will participate until a joint effort is formed effectively and systematical­ly, in his second speech, he moved the hearts of his listeners by saying that in Italy, the plague of Covid-19 moved very quickly. The number of victims is increasing.

Lee is optimistic that Singapore can overcome the impact of this out­break because it has experienced previous outbreaks such as MARS and SARS. However, he implicitly warned the world and regional re­sponse was not as good as that of Singapore. For this reason, he re­quested that people always be vigi­lant and follow government instruc­tions. Caring about their own health, as well as that of the community.

Silent Operation
President Joko Widodo stated some time ago that his government has been very concerned with the de­velopment of the Covid-19 outbreak in China. He has held intensive dis­cussions with various agencies, even including the State Intelligence Agen­cy (BIN). BIN’s participation shows that the government sees this out­break not only in terms of health but also the possibility of other causes.

Although the President did not disclose, the explosion of the vi­rus outbreak took place amid tense US-China trade relations. China is experiencing a winter that allows the virus to breed easily. The outbreak occurred in December, two months before the Chinese New Year which has economic and spiritual signifi­cance.

The queston is – why does the gov­ernment not communicate its views to approximately 260 million people who live on more than 17,500 is­lands? Of course, the material is not about sensitive issues, but about the need to prepare if the plague spreads across the country. A kind of early warning.

That silence aroused a reaction from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other countries. They do not believe Indonesia is free from the plague. They appealed to the govern­ment to do something. It turns out that doubt has been proven!

Government spokesman Achmad Yuniarto at the office of the Nation­al Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), Thursday, March 19, 2020, afternoon said that there were 309 positive cases of Corona, with 25 dead and eleven recovered. They are spread across eight provinces.

All the data shows that the mor­tality rate in Indonesia is among the highest in the world. The increase in cases has reached 40% per day. In fact, Indonesian Red Cross Chairman Muhammad Jusuf Kalla estimates that the number of positives is great­er if the number examined is broader.

External pressure has prompt­ed the government to appoint Chief of BNPB, Lieutenant General Doni Monardo, as the head of a Task Force to Accelerate the Corona Virus Handling on March 13. The urge also encouraged the government to be transparent. Transparency as such which has now revealed the facts about limited hospital capacity for those infected with the virus.

Indonesia also does not have ade­quate detection equipment and con­sequently does not have the capaci­ty to quickly ascertain examination status of suspects, lacking supply of masks and so on. It also revealed that there are weaknesses in coordi­nation and the enforcement of reg­ulations.

How is it that during a time where people who are concerned with the Corona virus outbreak, 49 foreign workers from China could enter the country so easily?

This group of workers were previ­ously quarantined in Thailand, but they could enter Jakarta freely. As written by M. Din Syamsuddin, who made a statement that the govern­ment is more concerned with invest­ment than the safety of its people, they even resorted to lying to defend foreign businessmen.

Meanwhile in Niranuang Village, Bontomarannu Subdistrict, Gowa Regency, South Sulawesi, there is the World Islam Scholar Meetings (Ijtima Ulama) for Asian Zone event, in which about 8,283 people from various re­gions in Indonesia and 411 people from at least nine countries are to participate. It is understood that this meeting has been prepared for a long time, but many have questioned on how the mechanism for health sur­veillance will be implemented. Saudi Arabia has stopped the Umrah to pre­vent the spread of the plague.

Covid-19 was initially considered not much different than the MARS and SARS viruses. This assessment affected the responses of policy mak­ers in various countries. They were just stunned because it turned out that the virus was then classified as new, contagious, more vicious and dif­ficult to detect. The majority of victims are generally elderly and already have chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart, lung and so on, but that does not mean that those outside that cat­egory are more immune to the virus, because there is evidence that those who were previously in good health were also infected by the virus.

Overcoming this Corona virus outbreak requires collaboration with various parties. BNPB has extended the emergency period until May 29, 2020. PMI has pioneered cooperation with Kadin (Trade and Industry Fed­erations) Indonesia, the Japanese and Chinese governments. Minister for State Owned Enterprises, Erick Tohir, has ordered 500 thousand masks, the Indonesian Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation donated a thousand quarantine suits. It is estimated that from day to day there will be more and more help coming.

This is in line with the statement of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who reminded his people that the eradication of Covid-19 requires significant funds, the importance of togetherness, and also psychological readiness.

The government and the people of Indonesia are actually working against time to overcome the Corona outbreak as soon as possible, realiz­ing a flattening curve and ending it. In this context, it is worth remember­ing the saying that time is a sword. If we are not good at using it, it will cut us.

It’s never too late, but it was only on March the 2nd that the communi­ty was moved to react accordingly be­cause there were two people suspect­ed of being infected with the Corona virus. It’s “business as usual”. (Sjarifuddin Hamid)

Sjarifudin is a senior journalist. He holds a BA from the Universitas Indonesia, gradu­ating from the department of Social and Political Science. His writing has been widely featured in, Harian Bisnis Indone­sia, Harian Sinar Harapan and was last Chief Editor for Majalah Suara. He writes for the Independent Observer.