A Centralized Pandemic Response in Decentralized Indonesia.

AuthorMorris, Chris

In 2001, sweeping decentralization reforms in Indonesia shifted responsibility for the delivery of many basic services--including healthcare--from the centre to the regions. In contrast, decisionmaking authority over a range of key pandemic response measures remains largely centralized. This article draws on events in the greater Jakarta area during February-April 2020 to highlight how these arrangements--together with a dash of politics--slowed initial local responses to COVID-19 without a corresponding payoff in the form of better national coordination.

However, this was not inevitable. A central government more intent on curbing the spread of the virus should have been able to work within Indonesia's framework for pandemic response (or make subtle adjustments to it) to minimize delays in taking action against the virus. Instead, it displayed a curious knack for intervention where greater regional discretion may have been appropriate, while absenting itself where a more active coordinating role would have been beneficial.

The Head Says Walk, the Feet Say Run

In late February 2020, Indonesia's then Minister of Health, Terawan Agus Putranto, made headlines with his claim that divine intervention and prayer explained the apparent absence of COVID-19 in the country. The identification of Indonesia's first confirmed cases in early March soon diminished the plausibility of that line of argument. But the tone for Indonesia's early response to COVID-19 had been set. As March wore on, and more cases of COVID-19 were confirmed, pressure mounted on Indonesia's seemingly reluctant central government to adopt stronger public health measures to contain the spread of the virus.

Lockdowns--generally understood to mean restrictions on the movement of people into, out of and within regions--became a particular point of contention. Under the 2018 Health Quarantine Law, the minister of health has exclusive power to authorize lockdowns as well as other social distancing measures such as the closure of schools and workplaces (components of what are known in Indonesia as large-scale social restrictions or PSBB). Regional governments must obtain approval from the minister before applying these measures; alternatively, the minister can mandate their application by regional governments if necessary.

Understandably concerned about the economic impact of lockdowns, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) pointedly reminded regional heads of government that they were forbidden from taking this course of action without central approval. Nevertheless, a small number went ahead and did so anyway. While doubtless irritating to Jokowi, isolated disobedience from small-time local politicians was not a serious affront to his authority. However, the same could not be said for what was happening right under his nose in the capital Jakarta, a sprawling, densely populated mega-city of 10.5 million people and the initial epicentre of the pandemic in Indonesia.

Having himself used the governorship of Jakarta as a springboard to the presidency, Jokowi was keenly aware of the city's importance in national politics. And there was no love lost between...

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