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Expats in Indonesia, Have You Hit the COVID-19 Panic Button Yet?

Expats in Indonesia, Have You Hit the COVID-19 Panic Button Yet?

Kenneth Yeung contemplates the credibility of claims that Indonesia could erupt in civil unrest because of coronavirus.

“RETURN HOME NOW.” That’s the travel advice displayed in big letters in the latest video message for American citizens in Indonesia, courtesy of the US Embassy in Jakarta.

Likewise, the Australian Consulate in Bali is urging Australians to leave Indonesia, warning the country’s healthcare system cannot handle the coronavirus pandemic. “Health concerns that would otherwise be easily dealt with routinely, could now become life threatening,” says one of the Australian consular staff.

Similar messages are being shared by the embassies of the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany.

Canadian Ambassador Cameron MacKay is encouraging his compatriots to consider leaving while flights remain available and advising those who stay to “prepare for the worst and make preparations to be self-sufficient”.

New Zealand Ambassador Jonathan Austin is less alarmist, saying if you must stay in Indonesia, “please stay in a safe bubble”.

As for Australian Ambassador Gary Quinlan, he already departed in early April “for medical reasons”.

The “leave now” warnings from diplomats are standard emergency protocol, but panic is being fostered by social media and even the mainstream media.

Particularly disturbing is an article by Australia’s once impartial ABC News, which in recent years has transformed into a clickbait-driven, partisan purveyor of smug opinion. The article in question is by ABC News’ Indonesia correspondent, Anne Barker, who writes from Australia that she left Jakarta because she “had no choice”.

Rather than interview some newly jobless Indonesians to find out how they are coping, or analyze data on national food stocks, Barker frets fearfully on how bad things might get in Jakarta. Here’s a sample: “What if panic buying emptied the shops and the tens of millions of Indonesians who live hand to mouth couldn’t get enough food? Would Jakarta erupt into looting, or riots, a complete breakdown of civil order? That presented a whole new — and dangerous — scenario. And what if, despite our best efforts, we still got sick at home, if one of us had an accident or broke a leg?”

Curious about this, I phoned a private hospital in Jakarta and asked if they could mend a broken leg. Yes. But what if they’re inundated with coronavirus patients? They could still mend a broken leg, provided you have sufficient funds to get preferential treatment.

Indonesia’s healthcare system has never been world class. One in three infants is stunted due to poor nutrition, and hospitals tend to be for the middle and upper classes, while the poor generally get treated at state health clinics.

As for panic-buying, Indonesia has not yet devolved to the levels of public stupidity displayed in Australia. According to Agriculture Ministry data, Indonesia’s rice stocks for the March-August period are well in excess of demand. Ten other staple commodities are also in surplus.

Barker writes that she argued in favour of buying “six months’ worth of food”. This is precisely the sort of message that encourages panic-buying, leads to hoarding, drives up inflation and causes shortages.

Indestructible or Plain Pigheaded?

Having lived in Indonesia for the best (and worst) part of 24 years, I occasionally muse upon the possibility of dying in a massive earthquake. During the spate of terrorist bombings in the 2000s, I pondered the wisdom of continuing to visit bars that could be targeted by suicide bombers. I also monitor data on the leading causes of death in Indonesia. But I don’t let idle speculation rule my decisions.

Sure, we can use a simple mathematical formula to “prove” that Indonesia will have 10 million coronavirus cases and 100,000 deaths by the end of June, but probability doesn’t prompt me to subscribe to the rampant scaremongering that Jakarta is on the cusp of exploding in a cataclysm of civil unrest.

Perhaps I have a misplaced sense of invulnerability in Indonesia because I survived unscathed during the May 1998 unrest surrounding Suharto’s downfall. There was no anti-Western sentiment in Jakarta in those days, although many Westerners scampered at the behest of their employers and embassies. I wandered past gleeful rioters and looters, who shouted cheerily to me while malls went up in smoke, and not far away, ethnic Chinese were being raped and/or murdered.

I was more wary in the immediate aftermath of the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, when Jakarta’s street protests gained a distinctly anti-Western sentiment.

In recent weeks, many expatriates have begun leaving Indonesia. One of my friends evacuated his family from Jakarta to the safety of remote West Timor and then kindly informed me I was “pigheaded” for not fleeing Java before an apparently inevitable meltdown.

ojek drivers


I wonder how Indonesia’s approximately 2.5 million online ojek (motorbike taxi) drivers will fare in the coming weeks. Many Jakarta-based workers have already begun returning to their home villages to eke an income from agriculture or fishing. The government has promised social assistance worth Rp600,000 per month and free electricity for the nation’s neediest families, once they have registered through their local neighbourhood administrative units. It’s not a handout for everyone who loses their job.

Walking my dog on the southern outskirts of Jakarta last week, I passed a group of ojek drivers congregated on a street corner. One of them called out and asked if my shopping bag contained any sembako that I could share. Sembako is an Indonesian acronym, meaning “nine basic necessities”: rice, corn, soybeans, sugar, palm oil, shallots, beef, chicken and eggs (salt and kerosene were dropped from the official list in 2017). The term is broadly used to describe non-financial social assistance handed out during times of economic crisis and natural disasters. Sembako could be a carton of instant noodles, packets of biscuits or even cigarettes. My faded shopping bag contained only a folded umbrella. Beggars are not uncommon in Indonesia, but it’s unusual for an ojek driver to ask for a handout.

The local ojek drivers told me that before coronavirus mitigation measures were introduced, they would each take about 12 to 15 orders a day, bringing home a daily profit of about Rp100,000 (US$6.50). But now, they are lucky to get even one order a day.

Across the road, I chatted to some Blue Bird taxi drivers. Working on a commission of 40%, they used to earn Rp5 million to Rp7 million ($320–$450) a month. Now, their earnings are down 95%. They estimate only 30% of the Blue Bird fleet remains operational, as many drivers have left their cabs at depots and returned to their hometowns in other provinces, ahead of the post-Ramadhan travel period, known locally as mudik.

The drivers I spoke to all live in the local suburban district and can’t simply take on rural work. “If there were job vacancies, we would move; but there are no jobs and we’re not supposed to move. Many people don’t even want a private driver now because they’re scared of coronavirus transmission,” said one driver.

The Blue Bird company has introduced a pandemic protocol: testing the health of drivers daily, issuing masks, disinfecting taxis and reducing the number of passengers per cab. It is also focusing on delivery services, but business is bad.

The cab drivers and ojek drivers all said they were yet to receive any social assistance funds from the government or their employers. Instead, they are accepting the generosity of fellow Indonesians providing sembako in affluent neighbourhoods.

Blue Bird driver – no customers due to Covid-19

“I already applied for social assistance by submitting my family card to the neighbourhood administrative unit, but that was over a week ago and no one has received anything yet,” said one ojek driver.

I asked the drivers if they envisaged food shortages, famine and mass riots. “There is no famine and no riots,” a cab driver declared. “We have gotong royong [community self-help], donors are giving rice, and we are looking at other ways to make money. Indonesia is a safe country. Riots only happen if there are political games.”

Leave it to Expert Expats

Many workers in Indonesia’s crippled tourism sector have been told to take unpaid leave “until things get back to normal” – and no one knows when that will happen. Companies are reluctant to fire fixed-contract staff because of high severance pay mandated by law.

Only about 30% of Indonesians have bank accounts. That means most don’t have savings that would afford them the luxury of staying at home for weeks or months on end. They have to go out and work to survive, especially once the family’s gold jewellery has been pawned.

Some expatriates seem unable to comprehend this. On a Facebook group for Jakarta expats, one man posted the following rant: “I’m sorry, but I have to voice my concerns, I love this country, they have some of the most beautiful and wonderful people in Asia. But do you want to DIE and infect your fellow country men. I live 23 floors up and I have an amazing view of south Jakarta, and today I was very pissed off and surprised by the amount of people on the streets. With 268 million people in the country and 10 million living in Jakarta I thought they would be more vigilant of the situation surrounding them. #WTF, #STAYATHOME, are you complete idiots, the only way we can resolve this terrible situation is to #STAYATHOME. Are you all completely incompetent of what is happening around you.”

Even Melbourne University’s top Indonesia academic, Tim Lindsey, co-authored a recent article that said President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo “appears to have again put economic considerations before public health”. It’s easy to issue such criticism from the comfort of distant Australia, where the unemployed collect substantial cash handouts and other benefits. In Indonesia, “economic considerations” are vital to prevent people from falling into poverty that could lead to illness and death. The same article cited a dubious prediction that Indonesia could have 240,000 coronavirus deaths by the end of April.

Academics might be better off criticizing the Indonesian government for having focused so much energy on its draft omnibus laws in March, when it should have been preparing clinics and hospitals for the coronavirus crisis.

What Next?

As more Indonesians lose their jobs, a small minority may feel compelled to turn to crime to feed their families, so we can expect petty theft to rise. Also, there’s usually a spike in crime ahead of Ramadhan, as people like to bring money back to their hometowns. So it’s worth being more vigilant and wary of possible scams. For example, friendly motorcyclists signal that you have a flat tire, but then remove the valuables from your car when you pull over.

The government has so far this month released about 37,000 inmates from notoriously overcrowded, drug-ridden jails – freeing those who have completed two-thirds of their sentences for minor offenses (mainly narcotics). This policy, aimed at reducing the spread of coronavirus in prison, has prompted social media posts bewailing that crime will soar because “everyone is being let out of jail”.

Some released prisoners will likely reoffend, but will they be unleashing civil unrest? It will probably take a few months of hardship before suffering people become desperate enough to contemplate crime – and lawlessness is unlikely to erupt during Ramadhan, which this year falls over April 23 to May 23.

If Indonesia does suffer a repeat of the worst of May 1998, many residential streets will set up roadblocks guarded by locals to deter troublemakers.

Kurniawan Hari, a veteran reporter for The Jakarta Post daily, tells me that while people are upset with the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, their discontent is unlikely to spark spontaneous mass social unrest. Instead, he says, politically ambitious provocateurs could try to incite riots in order to discredit or even replace the government.

“Of course there is a possibility of unrest in Indonesia,” he says. “People who have lost their income are getting impatient with the government’s response. Their economic situation is getting worse. Especially in the informal sector, some workers feel the government is being unfair in distributing social assistance by favouring the online ojek workers. But the people will not think about rioting, unless they are pushed by someone who tries to politically benefit from mass unrest.”

Kurniawan says it’s too early to judge whether Indonesia’s response to coronavirus is improving. “At first, the government was in denial. Then there was a cover-up regarding data and the need for test kits and medical equipment. Now, the death toll is rising and we still have to see if the cash assistance for the poor will actually reach the target people.”

Commenting on the warnings issued by foreign embassies, Kurniawan says Indonesia should not feel insulted, as the diplomats are only trying to minimize risk to their citizens.

So for now, leave Indonesia if you feel that’s best, but don’t get paranoid by overdosing on online doomsday scenarios. If you’re staying, now is the time to ensure you have good relationships in your local community. Start sincerely supporting neighbourhood efforts to help the needy, and make sure the neighbourhood has a good security system. Stay safe. Don’t panic.

Image source:

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