Feature

2020 on Hiatus

Can We Pray Away the Coronavirus in Indonesia?

2020/05/25 , Opinion
Randy Mulyanto
Randy Mulyanto
Randy Mulyanto is an Indonesian freelance journalist, previously based in Taipei. His work has appeared in Al Jazeera, the BBC, Lowy Institute's The Interpreter, OZY, the South China Morning Post, and other publications.
What you need to know

Indonesia's government relies on the Almighty to ward off Covid-19. My fellow citizens crowd at a McDonalds against social distancing measures. But I haven't lost hope.

After spending nearly two years as a journalist in Taipei, I moved back to Indonesia on January 21, my flight departing at midnight. Taiwan reported its first confirmed coronavirus case later in the day. 

Two weeks ago, a good friend of mine sent me a press release saying that Taiwan’s donation of 300,000 face masks arrived at Indonesia’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport.

“Taiwan’s face mask donation to Indonesia will strengthen the friendship between the two countries and once again prove the humanitarian spirit of ‘pandemic prevention does not know national borders’,” the statement read.

It brought a smile to my face to think that Taiwan has not forgotten Indonesians. 

We all know Taiwan has been successful in keeping the health crisis under control and is one of the few countries in the world where business goes on as usual. 

The decision to work in Taiwan was influenced by my family background. My paternal grandmother was born in China’s Guangdong province when the Kuomintang was still the governing party of the nation. Though my parents were born in Indonesia, they both speak Hakka and Hokkien, two languages spoken in Taiwan

Returning to Indonesia, too, was connected to my family. My happiness in reuniting with my family has been overshadowed by a mix of feelings. Mostly, disappointment in my government and fellow citizens. But also fleeting sensations of awe and hope. 

I wondered why Indonesia had not reported any single case for the first two months of this year, although the country had hundreds of direct flights from Wuhan, the original epicenter of the outbreak, and other cities in China. The Indonesian government had only suspended flights to and from China on February 5. It did not feel right, but perhaps there were simply no measures in place to detect the coronavirus then. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters/TPG Images
People wearing protective face masks shop for clothes at Tanah Abang wholesale market for textile, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Jakarta, Indonesia May 20, 2020.

My Taiwanese friends told me they still went to restaurants in Taipei as if nothing had changed. I was jealous; I have not gone out in weeks, only reporting from my desk using WhatsApp, email, and social media. Although I am thankful sources are still keen to talk over the phone or WhatsApp, this is not a substitute for reporting on the ground. 

Jakarta denied that there was a coronavirus outbreak before the government reported the first cases on March 2. Many citizens also did not follow the large-scale social distancing regulations imposed by the government.

I was furious when I saw social media posts of hundreds of people gathered outside the first McDonald’s in Jakarta — opened in 1991 — to send off a beloved symbol of Indonesia’s modernization for good on May 10.

To bid farewell to a fast-food chain while health workers were struggling to treat coronavirus patients and risked exposure to the virus — I couldn’t believe how some people were indifferent to their hardships.

Many Indonesians were equally outraged at this selfishness, hence the trending hashtag #IndonesiaTerserah (#IndonesiaWhatever in English) on Twitter.

I remember crying when interviewing a nurse who struggled in the field. Speaking to an Indonesian woman who lost both of her parents to the coronavirus had a similar effect on me. They have lost so much. But why won’t others show empathy by doing something as simple as staying home?

Meanwhile, government officials in Indonesia downplayed the severity of the virus, commenting that the country was “relying on the Almighty” and the government was “actually capable” of handling the outbreak. A minister at one point also claimed that Indonesia’s relatively high temperatures would give the country an advantage in containing the virus. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters/TPG Images
Children wearing a protective face mask are checked with thermal scanner before getting free food amid the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 14, 2020.

The Indonesian government has tried to mitigate the damage, but it could have done more and earlier, perhaps as early as China reported its first cases in December 2019. 

So far Indonesia has reported 22,271 cases and 1,372 deaths. For us to overcome this crisis altogether, we have to halt unnecessary trips for the next few months. 

My family and I have committed to staying home as long as possible, going out only to maintain our store and buy groceries, all within a mile from our home. This month, I only went out once with my father to buy lunch, as no one picked up our food delivery order on May 24, the first day of Eid.

Some might call us “privileged” for having the opportunity to remain home, but with our privileges, we exercise our responsibilities in being citizens who care about their fellow citizens through action, while ensuring our own safety.

When I was still in school, I remember learning gotong royong, an Indonesian term that means “working together.” Now is the time for all people to cooperate, regardless of religion or ethnicity — two of the deepest divisions in Indonesian society.

Now thousands of miles away, Taiwan has left me another nice message once again — this time the coronavirus too shall pass in Indonesia. Perhaps by the end of this year, or maybe a year after. But this too shall pass.


TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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2020 on Hiatus:

Our world has been plagued by things beyond the coronavirus itself: panic, disinformation, racism, unemployment, and loneliness. In a series of essays, we’re going to talk about the social and psychological impact through personal anecdotes and observations. Together, we would imagine the possibilities that await us after the pandemic.

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