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Covid-19 spills droplets over Indonesian politics

Widodo's rare show of discontent with ministers is a sign of a deepening crisis

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Covid-19 spills droplets over Indonesian politics

A worker pours water on newly planted flowers at a burial site for Covid-19 victims at Keputih cemetery in Surabaya, East Java, on July 15. (Photo: Juni Kriswanto/AFP)

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Four months after Indonesia reported its first coronavirus cases, the pandemic's sting is reaching deep into the heart of the government.

It’s not just in terms of the soaring number of new cases and casualties — its effects on the careers of underperforming cabinet members and government officials are threatening to become disastrous.

The slow response to the virus by several key ministers in charge of health and economic recovery has forced President Joko Widodo to issue a threat of a cabinet reshuffle. 

Speculation that a reshuffle was on the cards started when the presidential secretariat’s YouTube channel showed footage of Widodo criticizing ministers' response to the crisis late last month. He was angry and accused them of lacking creativity and failing to come to grips with the crisis.

Widodo told his aides in a rare show of discontent that he would take extraordinary measures such as replacing below-par-ministers and dissolving inefficient state agencies.

His disappointment is understandable as he knows the buck stops with him as president, but his anger seems to stem from his ministers not understanding this, or their reluctance to be bold and take a risk.

The ministers certainly did not see such a rebuke coming from the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Widodo. However, the Indonesian public was quite happy about it, having had to endure often contradictory anti-virus policies introduced by ministers.

It is hoped Widodo’s outburst came at the right time — before it is too late for the nation to rebound against the pandemic's devastating effects.

With an average of 1,500 new cases recorded daily over the past few weeks, predictions that Indonesia will become an Asian Covid-19 epicenter could soon become a reality.

The slide could be irreversible unless extraordinary measures are taken. Widodo has promised them and began by dissolving 18 “inefficient” state agencies on July 20. He said the end goal was to engage more resources to support the government’s economic recovery programs.

How successful this particular move will be is open to question, but it’s definitely not enough. Indonesians have yet to see what the president will do about poorly performing ministers and officials.

A cabinet reshuffle is certainly within the president’s remit, but the key issue here is the lack of leadership displayed by his ministers. Widodo’s reshuffle threat did not specifically mention any minister. But it was understood the health minister, Terawan Agus Putranto, was one of them. 

Early on, the Indonesian government allocated US$48 billion to fight the coronavirus, with roughly $5.2 billion going to healthcare, while the rest is to support individuals and families affected by the pandemic and economic stimulus packages.

However, to the president’s surprise, by June nearly 98 percent of the budget disbursed to the Health Ministry had been unused at a time when medical workers, hospitals and other healthcare services were crying out for cash.

Widodo himself has come under fire over the time it took him to get tough with his ministers. Critics have asked why he didn’t instill a sense of urgency at the beginning of the pandemic, which has now seen Indonesia overtake China in terms of the number of infections and deaths recorded.

However, the threat was an expression of deep anxiety on his part over his government’s poor response. It was an effort to jolt his ministers from their slumber, urging them to take a grip and be bolder in handling the crisis.

The pandemic has not shown any signs of leveling off and has defied forecasts by experts that it would reach its peak by July. 

Much of this can be put down to testing, or rather the lack of it. China has conducted more than 90 million tests since the virus emerged in Wuhan city late last year. That equates to 62,814 tests per one million people. Indonesia so far has conducted around 1.3 million tests or 4,910 per one million people, which also lags far behind the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and other Asian countries. 

The government said that ideally Indonesia has to conduct an average of 30,000 tests per day, up from about 20,000 now, to be able to come up with better predictions. However, experts advised the government to go for 50,000 daily tests to have a better picture.

The government has been criticized since the beginning for not placing people’s health over the economy. However, the government argues that it is better to shoot at two stars — people’s health and the economy — at the same time as they are inseparable.

Amid such a challenge, it is not enough to just focus on the economic side of the crisis. It requires strong political will from the government, which must stop playing the blame game. 

Discussions about a cabinet reshuffle have subsided in recent days. It could be a sign that the ministers have improved their performance or it could signal that Widodo does not see a reshuffle as the solution to the problem. 

Getting new people into the cabinet is time-consuming, and they will certainly need to adjust to the new environment while the yoke of Covid-19 is getting heavier. 

Indonesians really don’t want to think that Widodo was merely bluffing with his reshuffle threat. However, what is needed right now is cross-sectoral cooperation and strong leadership of ministers in leading the people out of the misery caused by the pandemic. 

Last but not least, the people want to see Widodo keep his misfiring ministers on their toes.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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