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‘Humanizing’ Indonesia’s COVID-19 Pandemic Response


While the rich industrial countries are simply readjusting their national budgets amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the fiscal options for the middle-to-low income countries seem to be strictly limited. The Indonesian government, for instance, has undergone about USD 51 billion deficit after allocating about USD 25 billion for the health sector and other incentives for the COVID-19 relief.

Unfortunately, in coping with this unprecedented crisis, the government not only experiences financial deficit but also ‘implementation deficit’ in channelling the pandemic relief. Jokowi administration relies heavily on the centralized database and numeric data from the ministries which are often lacking in its credibility. Conversely, limited efforts have been made to systematically engage civil society and to acquire a much-needed sense of actual vulnerability within the population. As a result, the top-down strategy amid the COVID-19 outbreak in the country inherently lacks a ‘humanistic’ touch.

The vulnerable population who does not fall into the ‘official’ numeric category is desperately seeking the attention of the government to no avail. Many households in need were allegedly omitted from receiving the ‘grocery package’ or paketsembako, indicating the low credibility of the government’s database on vulnerable citizens. In Malaysia, some Indonesian workers are starving and, some of them, even eating grass to survive in an isolated warehouse because there are not enough savings to buy foods. Not to mention the controversies surrounding the USD 16 million online training package for those who were laid-off by their employersdue toCOVID-19 fallout.

Unlike in South Korea or Taiwan where the developmental state model worked effectively, the Indonesian’s slow response showed otherwise. Fortunately, society plays a pivotal role in fixing the shortcomings of top-down pandemic response strategies. This ‘parallel circuit’, that is the networks of society that self-mobilizes their resources,offers a more humanistic approach in battling the pandemic. Most importantly, these grass-root acts can be seen as a criticism of the central government’s incompetence and its slow pandemic response policy.

Civil society and private sectors had come up with initiatives of their own and jumped on the bandwagon of pandemic battle. An overwhelming amount of public funds has been raised for COVID-19 relief. Kitabisa, an Indonesian-based online crowdfunding platform, has raised more than Rp.70 billion ($4.5 million) in funds through various campaigns led by celebrities, social media influencers, NGOs, and individual philanthropists. While some notable multinational or local major companies, and business tycoons also pledged to participate in this nation-wide charity movement, amounted to hundreds of billions in funds.

Such solidarity is omnipresent not only domestically but also among Indonesian communities abroad. In a consultative meeting between the Indonesian government and Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Network (JaringanBuruhMigran) a few days ago, the government begged for the cooperation from Indonesian migrant communities across the working destination countriesto reach out to the most suffering ones during the crisis. Indonesian migrant associations in Malaysia, for instance, have helped the government and many charity organizations distribute grocery packages to their fellow workers. A group of Javanese and Madurese migrant workers even donated a ton of sweet potatoes for those severely affected by Covid-19. Therefore, the current pandemic has even charted a new scheme of charity, in which workers in need are independently and mutually helping one another.

While elements of society have shown their compassion and even built a repertoire of charity movement, its pivotal role is overshadowed by some frivolous political matters. The government has been entangled in a series of petty political squabbles with the critics which are often escalated into repressive acts and legal persecution. The political fallout of this circumstance has greatly cost the country a prospect for national consolidation amid this looming catastrophe. 

In a nutshell, pandemic management in Indonesia is still inherently non-inclusive and leaning towards ‘securitization’.With this ‘securitizing attitude’, it fails to invigorate the high level of social capital among the society and the enormous resources accumulated from their activities. What the country needs is a consultative relationship between the government and key non-state actors including, inter alia, public health experts, economists, and NGOs working on social issues as important collaborators. Hence, a more ‘humanizing’ approach should be opted for in times like this.

This blog-article was previously published in

Ratu Ayu Asih Kusuma Putri is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Bina Nusantara University, Indonesia and Pamungkas A. Dewanto is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

One Comment

  1. Freek Colombijn Freek Colombijn

    Thank you for this interesting piece. I have heard sad stories from friend who cannot “pulang ke kampung” for Lebaran, but their sadness is better than a mass movement across the Archipelago. I hope most Indonesians have chosen to stay at home. I also hear stories of people that organize their own support groups in their neighbhourhood, just like you desribe here.

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