Camille Bismonte

The Jakarta Post – June 19, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only drastically affected the way we live our lives, but it has thrust many countries into having to decide when to transition from sheltering to reopening –sometimes precipitating harmful partisan domestic battles.

By way of example, the United States and Brazil, although somewhat distinct, are both suffering greatly from COVID-19 and are considering reopening. Both are led by aggressive populists who rose to power as antielite and anti-establishment figures. Their leaders are prone to reject the opinions of scientists, promote conspiracy theories and undermine media that oppose them. Yet now they seek to avoid blame for any failure to ameliorate COVID-19 damage.

By reducing the lack of public trust in the public health sector and in their governments’ administrative ability, politicians in the US and Brazil have effectively politicized the pandemic and the associated decision to restart their economies.

In the case of the US, President Trump’s contempt for experts has made wearing masks a partisan issue. Even though it is now widely agreed that wearing a mask is a powerful tool to avoid COVID-19, the non-wearing of a mask has transitioned into a political signal of a reopened nation that Trump wishes to have. So, he refuses to wear one in public or urge others to do so. With the presidential election in November and his approval rating plummeting, Trump views a hasty reopening of the country as a political imperative.

Trump leads the Republican Party, which has been actively pushing to open up, including moving their convention to a location with less COVID-19 restrictions. On the other hand, the opposing Democrats are more willing to wear masks and are more comfortable with avoiding relaxing social distancing measures. For Trump, the pandemic is personal, since he sees his power being attacked by experts who disagree with him and his reopening ambitions. Consequently, relaxation itself has become a political football in America.

This is similar to Brazil. In addition to firing his health minister, President Bolsonaro has been feuding with health experts, going so far as to withhold government obtained data because he wished to avoid disclosure of the extent of COVID-19’s harm to Brazil. Even now, with coronavirus cases surging in Brazil, he has been strong-arming his local governments to transition to reopening the economy.

By contrast, the relaxation of social distancing measures never became a political issue in South Korea. This was because both the opposition and the government agreed that aggressive steps to stop the virus were important from the beginning.

In an online dialogue between the Korea Foundation (KF) and the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) on June 2, professor Eui-Young Kim of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Seoul National University noted that the “role of civic society was critical in terms of a high level of civic awareness and voluntary cooperation… (South Korea) flattened the curve without China’s draconian restrictions on speech and movement, or economically damaging lockdowns like those in Europe and the United States.” South Korea is unusual in that it enjoys a position of great trust between the government and the governed. Its citizens also have a significantly high level of participation in the political process.

South Korea utilized public trust in the government as a tool of mobilizing its people to head off rampant COVID-19 infections, including voluntary vigorous tracing. Consequently, reopening never became politicized because South Korea never had to choose whether to continue a lockdown or to open up the economy.

According to Endy Bayuni, senior editor at The Jakarta Post, Indonesia is unusual in that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo entered the coronavirus crisis with an impressive 60 to 70 percent approval rating, and according to a 2019 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with data compiled from Gallup, Indonesia had a trust rating of 84 percent.

It was exactly because of this support Jokowi was able to pass sweeping reforms quickly, such as issuing executive orders to allow government spending to break the deficit ceiling of 3 percent of gross domestic product and delaying regional elections from September to December.

But perhaps Jokowi found himself in an echo chamber and this overwhelming support hindered him from being able to heed critiques and advice from outside his coterie. Confusingly, Jokowi had an advantage South Korea had – high public trust in his administrative ability as a result of his successful previous term.

But for some reason he fell into the trap of not being transparent. As a consequence of blunders from the administration, which included not disclosing to the public the advent of COVID-19 cases and a misguided tourism promotion campaign, the trust rating as of March 10 in Indonesia has recently fallen to 58.5 percent.

This trust can be rebuilt. First, the Jokowi administration should identify coronavirus experts, particularly notable health experts, and allow them to share regular and timely updates to the general public. Not only should they be given the necessary public platforms, but the government should acknowledge its support of these individuals.

Second, the government needs to promote transparency through meaningful public discourse. Lately, the government has been relying upon online forums — an inefficient substitute for the give and take between the public and the government that greatly hampers the ability of the media to ask follow-up questions. Notably, there is no reason why press conferences cannot be undertaken during the pandemic as well, so long as the necessary social distancing and hygienic precautions are undertaken, as demonstrated by other countries in the world.

As it loosens social restrictions, the Jokowi administration, along with more widespread COVID-19 testing, should stand true to its commitment and monitor the results. By transitioning out of lockdown responsibly, with the chance of an “emergency brake” to their transition plans if a surge in cases is correlated with the reopening of the country, Indonesia can avoid the temptation of prioritizing political motivations to reopen the economy quickly to the detriment of public health.

Finally, the central government should collaborate more with regional governments to fashion solutions fitted to specific regions. Otherwise, an ill-planned reopening will only lead to severe consequences for the Indonesian people and the economy.

As of now, only time will tell if Indonesia will pass the test of reopening or fall short. If it succeeds, trust in the government will continue and counterproductive partisan battles being waged in other countries will be avoided.

The writer is associate researcher at the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) and student of Georgetown University in Washington, DC

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