Kenneth Yeung pompously pontificates on education in a time of viral uncertainty.
As a pretentious 16-year-old, one of my favourite books was “The Stranger” (L’Entranger, sometimes translated as The Outsider) by French author Albert Camus.
The upshot of the book is that although the inevitability of death makes life absurd, society will condemn you for indifference (especially if you’re dumb enough to commit murder and show no remorse).
It’s a different story in Indonesia, where it seems officials will not be condemned for their initially indifferent and inadequate response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, which now dominates the small screens that control our small minds.
Long before the advent of smartphone idolatry, my school in Australia had required me to read “The Stranger” for Grade 11 English. I was inspired to pick up some other works by Camus, including “The Plague” – the tale of an Algerian port city that gets locked down when struck by a deadly plague. The book examines how people react in times of mass suffering; some motivated by profit, some by religious fervour, and some by altruism. Despite the grim subject matter, it’s a triumph of humanitarian perseverance over the excruciating emptiness of existence.
Years later in Indonesia, as a pretentious adult, I read a novella called “Bukan Pasar Malam” (It’s Not an All Night Fair) by local author Pramoedya Ananta Toer and was struck by its similarity in tone to “The Plague”. Sadly, Indonesia’s Suharto regime did not approve of people exercising critical thinking, so Pramoedya was jailed and his books were banned for decades.
This ingrained mindset against independent thinking can be linked to Indonesia’s woefully belated response to COVID-19. A friend quipped, via a WhatsApp message of course, that Indonesia’s official reaction was akin to the paternalistic Javanese style of infantilizing your subjects by treating them like ignorant children who cannot handle the truth.
Most Indonesian school children are not required to study Pramoedya or other great literature. Instead, it seems they are being conditioned to think the meaning of life is to get rich quick to fund luxurious indolence – and don’t forget to adopt an air of religious righteousness, so you can justify or find penance for any personal flaws. The higher education system now seems fixated upon transforming universities into manpower factories for big businesses, rather than fostering citizens with the ability to remedy socio-political iniquities.
As for the healthcare industry, medicine students can cheat on exams and don’t have to worry about competent competition because foreign doctors are banned.
No News is Bad News
Nature abhors a vacuum. Faced with a government whose policy was to withhold information concerning COVID-19, Indonesians turned to social media with its myriad manifestations of misinformation.
Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, rather than devising a comprehensive national protocol for widespread testing, reporting, and control measures, simply claimed prayer was keeping the country safe.
His lackadaisical attitude should have rung alarm bells. In early February 2020, Harvard University public health researchers issued a report recommending that Indonesia rapidly strengthen its efforts to ensure detection of cases and bring them under control. Terawan went on the defensive, branding the report “an insult” to Indonesia and reiterated his mantra that prayer is the solution. “Medically, [it’s thanks] to prayer. It’s all because of prayer… I am certain that prayer is what makes [Indonesians] like this,” he said.
An online army of social media sock-puppet morons backed up the spurious notion that Indonesia enjoys immunity because of religious devotion, its tropical climate, a uniquely healthy diet (since when are cigarettes, palm oil, sugar, and white rice health foods?) and other equally dubious claims.
Some wags in government offices quipped that the coronavirus could not reach Indonesia because of the excessive paperwork needed to obtain an entry permit. Others joked that toxic air pollution was killing the virus before it could infect people.
Meanwhile, Indonesians who were feverish and suffering breathing problems had to beg to be tested for COVID-19. The vast majority went untested, while some of those given negative test results then went to Singapore and tested positive.
Indonesia only announced its first cases when two female residents of Depok, south of Jakarta, could be linked to a visiting Japanese national. And the country did not announce its first fatality until a foreigner succumbed to the disease. All this was to sustain the narrative that COVID-19 was a foreign problem that would not be an issue in Indonesia.
Hospitals across Java are now being overwhelmed by an influx of elderly patients with breathing difficulties. Few are being tested for COVID-19 due to insufficient test kits. So when ailing people die, the cause of death is likely to be attributed to other illnesses. As of March 20, the country had tested only about 2,000 people and confirmed 38 deaths.
Worldwide, the average age of death from COVID-19 is about 80 and most of the fatalities had pre-existing health problems. In Indonesia, life expectancy is only 71 years old, thanks in part to a government that thinks it’s perfectly fine for the country to be adorned with cigarette billboards featuring the idiotic slogan “Never Quit”. State revenue is much more important than public health.
The key to getting through COVID-19 will be good governance, good medical facilities, and a population that heeds government instructions. There are concerns that Indonesia might not fare so well.
While lockdowns and working or studying from home cause some inconvenience, such measures are not remotely comparable to wartime hardship or the misery of the bubonic plague that hit the world hundreds of years ago. When businesses stop paying staff and hospitals become more overstretched, it is the nation’s exploited poor who will suffer most. Hence, it’s understandable that the government is struggling to walk the narrow line between under-reacting and overreacting. Keeping the economy ticking over is vital, but so is educating people to improve their political system to develop leaders who aren’t beholden to parties that end up appointing deficient government officials.
Perhaps Indonesia will learn from COVID-19. As Camus wrote in The Plague: “We’re working side by side for something that unites us – beyond blasphemy and prayers. And it’s the only thing that matters,” and “What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” However, that was a work of fiction.