The Corona Blunder

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  • TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The methods used by Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto in handling the current coronavirus contagion in the country is more chaotic than a reflection of the government of Indonesia’s self-confidence.

    This recklessness was most apparent in the many public statements Terawan made which tended to downplay the rapid spread potential of the deadly flu virus. Time and again he suggested for people to pray that they do not get infected with Covid-19. Indeed, he even suggested people hold a mass istigasah (imploring help from the Almighty) prayer rally for Indonesia to be free of the corona outbreak.

    Some parties may probably accept Terawan’s communication style as aimed only for consumption by certain masses, say to quell the community from panicking. The problem is, many people are complaining this is the very style he employs within the health ministry. He has totally ignored standard procedure in a contagion.

    Minister Terawan did not involve all the competent hospitals, relevant research institutes, nor the health offices in every province to work in conjunction to handle the potential epidemic. He did not create routine coordination with international health organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), so the spread of the coronavirus in Indonesia can be monitored on a global level.

    The peak occurred when two residents of Depok, West Java, were deemed coronavirus positive, and the government was caught completely off guard. Some information said President Jokowi did not get his report directly from Terawan. The minister did not even attend the special meeting to discuss the crisis at the health ministry.

    That was not all. Muddled coordination was also apparent when the Depok health office was requested by the health ministry to not reveal information about the two Covid-19 infected patients, only to found out moments later, the news was made public by the President."

    Indonesia should have been more prepared for a crisis such as the Covid-19 contagion. We already have experience handling the SARS disease and the bird flu contagion awhile back. Crisis protocols in handling extraordinary disease incidents like this are available.

    Indeed, we are not the only country in disarray handling the contagion. The Chinese government initially was criticized for not being transparent in reporting the spread of the virus to its people and the international community. The Japanese government was reviled for isolating almost 4,000 passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in the harbour, which in fact caused an even deadlier spread of the virus. The communication style of American President Donald Trump concerning Covid-19 has also been criticized. But these are not sufficient reasons to ignore our own government’s blundering.

    Minister Terawan had ample time to prepare. When the disease first spread in early January in China, anticipatory steps should have been taken. Particularly since a Harvard University health expert had warned Indonesia since mid-February about the weak detection procedures concerning the disease spread at the ports of entry for Indonesian citizens returning from Wuhan, China.

    It is unfortunate that Terawan responded lackadaisically, which made the public even more wary. His background as a military general and his minimal competence concerning public health could very well be why the minister did not grasp what should have been done.

    The public panic that arose after President Jokowi’s announcement early last week should not have happened if from the outset, the government had not been lax and inattentive about the disease. The fact that the death toll as a result of the virus is low and tens of thousands of people have been healed is no reason for not being rapid-responsive.

    The economic stimulus by the government together with the Central Bank is laudable, but its effectiveness is limited if not conducted in conjunction with a mitigation strategy on the public health front. In this critical phase, there is no use for encouraging people to take vacations simply because ticket prices are being offered for cheap.

    Public trust can be revived if the government’s strategy for handling the contagion is improved. Appointing a spokesperson for the corona issue shows rectification efforts are being made. Minister Terawan can help the process by reducing his unnecessary blundering and focusing on detecting citizens vulnerable to the spread of the virus, contain its spread, and treating those already infected. If these steps are not taken, the President should consider a more competent figure to sit on the chair of the health ministership.

    Read the Complete Story in this Week's Edition of Tempo English Magazine