Medics dying, infections soaring — it’s still the economy?
Cross to bear: A grave digger writes the name of a deceased COVID-19 victim on a cross at Pondok Ranggon public cemetery, East Jakarta, on Monday, while a burial proceeds in the background. Up to 40 people are buried in the cemetery every day. (JP/P.J. Leo)

By Esther Samboh
First published in the Jakarta Post, September 2, 2020

There are many things I don’t know about in life, but this strikes me as the biggest puzzle today: Why are we being told to embrace the “new normal” when more people are dying and getting infected?
Are we supposed to go out and about, put ourselves and others at risk of infection, when the government has yet to solve issues related to Indonesia’s healthcare system?
Hospitals are filling up.
A hundred doctors have died.
There are only few beds left for intensive care units in hospitals across Jakarta.
The COVID-19 infection rate soared to new highs for three consecutive days last week.
The campaign for new normal is probably one of the most successful efforts the government has made as far as COVID-19 is concerned.
Densely populated Jakarta, the most infected in the country, looks to have returned to pre-pandemic times.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” chimes louder than ever before, lending the quote from Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville.
Southeast Asia’s largest economy, which is dominated by economically vulnerable and informal workers, can’t afford to massively restrict movements of the people.
By opting for no lockdown, the Indonesian government has preferred to sacrifice thousands dying instead of millions going hungry if busy cities go into lockdown.
The biggest question is, can they really prevent millions from starvation?
Recent inflation data show purchasing power has been extremely weak up to August.
At 1.32 percent year-on-year, the August inflation rate is the lowest in the past two decades. Government estimates also show 5.5 million people may lose their jobs this year, while 4 million may fall into poverty.
The reopening of the economy, which includes relaxation of large-scale social restrictions (PSBB) in Jakarta, including shopping malls reopening and resumption of public activities under health protocols, has taken its toll on new infection clusters.
Soon after the economy reopened, COVID-19 clusters emerged in offices in Jakarta.
In Cikarang in neighboring Bekasi, factories of Suzuki Indomobil Motor, LG Electronics Indonesia and Unilever Indonesia were shut after dozens to hundreds of employees were infected.
All are located in the Cikarang industrial zone, one of Southeast Asia’s largest industrial estates.
The rise in cases appears as economic growth contracted deeper than expected at 5.32 percent in the second quarter, the worst since 1999.
Meanwhile, the continued drop in consumer prices to record lows points to economic recession in sight in the third quarter as consumer spending accounts for more than half of GDP.
In short, the government’s attempts to reopen the economy have yet to bear fruit.
Rather, they have resulted in more COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Without stricter public health measures and quarantine, as well as healthcare system overhaul and capacity boost, soon the government will lose on both fronts: public health and economy.
New and old studies show that pandemics will surely suppress the economy, but early and aggressive measures to flatten the infection curve could accelerate economic recovery when the pandemic is over.
This includes the April 2020 study titled “Pandemics depress the economy, public health interventions do not: Evidence from the 1918 flu”.
Bottom line: Saving lives should come first, and economic recovery will follow.
Keeping the COVID-19 response as is would prolong economic recovery and the public health crisis.
Having said that, the government did try to improve the healthcare system, by focusing the COVID-19 containment budget primarily on healthcare spending, apart from the social safety net and economic recovery.
However, of the Rp 87.5 trillion healthcare budget, which is the least of the three priority pillars, only 14 percent had been disbursed as of Aug. 28.
The slow disbursement of the healthcare budget is an unnecessary added burden to the healthcare system already overwhelmed today.
Clearly, the government’s apparent strategy of buying time until vaccines are able to be distributed to the public is not working.
Hospital beds are already filled up three months before the scheduled release of the potential vaccine by the end of this year.
With 20 to 30 million vaccine doses committed to be distributed in the partnership between China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd and state-owned Bio Farma, only a select few will get early access to the vaccine.
Some 80 to 130 million doses are expected to be available in the first quarter of next year and 210 million doses for the remainder of 2021.
This means Indonesians will continue to be at risk of being infected by the coronavirus until the middle of next year, hence the healthcare system needs to be overhauled immediately.
Elsewhere in the world, countries that have responded quickly and aggressively on the public health front have flattened the curve and reopened their economies with less risks.
Investing in the healthcare system, as well as in large-scale, affordable, and in some cases free, testing, as well as a centralized patient database have worked, looking at Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Norway, among others.
The government should stop making people feel okay to roam, as hospital beds are running out, the infection rate is climbing and more doctors are losing lives.
The highest authority must not give a sense of false optimism.
Tell us the risks of infecting and being infected, educate us about our healthcare system and capacity, guide us to protect ourselves and our surroundings.
I am privileged enough to have been able to work from home for the past six months.
Many other people could stay home more, if the government gives them the privileges by campaigning for #stayhome rather than #newnormal, reform the healthcare system and speed up social safety net disbursement.
Without proper public health response, economic crisis will be prolonged.

The Southeast Asian Times, September 8, 2020
First published in the Jakarta Post. September 2, 2020

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