By: Noto Suoneto, Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI).
Like it or not, Covid-19 has become the most "political" virus in living memory.
Yes, prior to Covid-19, there were scores of viruses that were also lethal and killed many people. But none of them had nearly the political impacts Covid-19 is now having on countries throughout the world.
AIDS has claimed 32 million lives until now, but it did not define the political discourse in the 1980s. The Asian flu of the 1960s has killed 1.1 million people, but there was hardly any political impact on the ruling regimes back then. This was also true for SARS, H5N1, Bird flu, Ebola — which caused some damages in terms of public health but did not spill over much to the political scene.
Now, Covid-19. There has never been a time when the political fate of so many national leaders is determined by a disease. The political impact is so far-reaching, it is sparking an ideological debate whether democracies or socialist/communist systems are better in effectively responding to a pandemic threat. The jury is still out on that question.
There is also a theory emerging that countries with female leaders do better in dealing with Covid-19 — just look at Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Tsai Ing-wen, I would not argue with that.
Why is Covid-19 earning the distinction to become such a “political” virus?
There is, firstly, the factor of scale. For the virus to contract 6 million people worldwide in just 5 months is truly mind-boggling. Some 213 countries now have Covid-19 cases to varying degrees. The world has never seen anything like this.
Second, the Covid-19 death toll has made it very political. In the US, the virus in just 4 months has killed more Americans than the US soldiers that died in the Vietnam war. When large-scale deaths occur, it automatically becomes political. People get angry and will want to blame somebody, usually the Government.
Third, Covid-19 affects everybody and every sector of society, particularly the economy. Companies are closing down and profits dwindling. Unemployment in some countries has been rising phenomenally. And when there is an avalanche of jobs, things, again, become political. Many elections in western countries, after all, are decided by jobs.
Covid-19 has found itself at the political center-stage in across the world. There are leaders who have found this to be an opportunity to regain credibility, while others have been caught off-guard and seen their public approval decline.
In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in had suffered from a series of political blows when Covid-19 arrived, he launched a series of aggressive policies in handling the COVID-19 crisis that not only was successful but also impressed the public. The Korean people rewarded his Democratic Party in the April 15 elections with an extraordinarily high voter turn-out where the Democratic Party won 180 out of 300 seats in the Parliament, no doubt thanks to Covid-19.
In India, Prime Minister Modi, who had been burdened by a series of economic mismanagement and controversial law that led to troubled relations with India’s Muslims, saw his popularity surging again to 65% as a result of public approval of his Covid-19 handling.
This also happened in France, where President Emmanuel Macron, weakened in the last 2 years by debilitating protests over his economic policies including pension system, saw his polls overturned dramatically from a low of 36% before Covid-19 arrived at 42% on the government response in recent months.
Similarly, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was able to declare New Zealand "COVID-19 free nation", adding to her already memorable leadership during the Christchurch shooting. Her Covid-19 success means that the next general election, scheduled for September 2020 would be hers to win.
In the United States, COVID-19 has also catapulted to become the nation’s main political issue. It will certainly become a hot election issue, one where President Trump would claim that he has done an amazing job handling Covid-19 and would blame China for the problem; while Joe Biden would argue that President Trump has handled Covid-19 disastrously and would blame Trump for all the economic and social troubles facing the country now.
Indeed, President Trump’s approval rating has plummeted while Joe Biden’s position has somehow strengthened. A recent survey by CNN found that 55% of voters would vote for Biden if the election were held today, while 41% would favor Trump.
It is just very possible that Covid-19 will bring down the Trump Presidency in 2020.
Indonesia’s experience has been no different: Covid-19 has become as much a political issue as it is a public health one.
When Wuhan was locked down in January, President Jokowi was still deep in a “honeymoon” period after being sworn in for a second term in November 2019. President Jokowi had won by a landslide, had successfully assembled a solid coalition Government and controlled a large majority in the Parliament. He had big plans for the country — especially for the economy, infrastructure, human capital, and a new capital city in East Kalimantan.
This partly explained why the Government was reluctant to deal with the Covid-19 threat squarely in the face (as that would derail all their plans), and instead chose an overconfident and dismissive attitude towards Covid-19 in January and February 2020.
This led to a serious lack of preparation which proved very costly once the first detectable cases Covid-19 arrived in Indonesia in March. The Government appeared unprepared, disoriented and uncoordinated. As a result, the Government, especially the Minister for Health, received a great deal of public criticism and even ridicule.
Since March 2020, President Joko Widodo has made sustained efforts to regain the public trust. His administration has created a national task force on Covid-19, revised the national budget to make room for over 700 trillion rupiah stimulus for Covid-19 measures, implemented large scale social distancing (which amounts to partial lock-down), assigned hundreds of hospitals to handle Covid-19 cases, and set a target of 20,000 tests per day.
With the elections still 4 years away, President Joko Widodo has plenty of time to deal with Covid-19 without having to look much over his shoulder. But the President should realize that his legacy in history will be judged not by his ability to relocate the nation’s capital but by his ability to beat the Covid-19 in terms of public health as well as in mitigating economic and social impacts. The latest poll in May shows that public satisfaction of President Joko Widodo had declined although only by a few percentage points.
Furthermore, what will matter is not only his success in containing and unwinding Covid-19, but how he would go about achieving it.
President Joko Widodo would be well advised to keep his faith in a “democratic response” to the Covid-19 threat. He must open to public debate and discord (At the moment, the Government seems touchy of criticisms). He must be decisive, but he must make the right decisions. He must be able to balance his populist impulse with science-based decision-making. And he must be able to define the “new normal” in practical terms that would balance economic needs with public health interests.
Just as the virus has become political, you can bet your bottom dollar that the vaccine too will be very political. After all, the return to total normalcy will only be possible once medicine and vaccines are found, and, for Indonesians, distributed into our country for the health benefit of our people.
Nobody knows when this will happen, or how this will be done. It can be assumed that there will be a lot of political and diplomatic bickering and drama to get access to the vaccines, and President Joko Widodo’s ability to get these medicines and vaccines will become a matter of either political triumph or tribulation.
All in all, President Joko Widodo and his cabinet still has time to make up for the momentary public disappointment that occurred in February this year.
He just needs to do away with the politics of adulation and enter into a crisis leadership mode.
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