Public Trust Deficit and Failed Governance: The Response to COVID-19 in Makassar, Indonesia.


In March 2020, a few days after the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi Province, a series of events posed immense challenges to the local government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak. A spate of street actions began on 31 March, when residents in Kelurahan Bitowa refused to allow the burial of a COVID-19 patient in a public cemetery. (1) The next day, in other parts of the city, mobs burned car tyres and blockaded roads, rejecting the burial of patients near their homes. (2) Several days later, residents in certain parts of the city refused to allow entry to medical teams, blocking roads and holding up banners that read "tolak rapid test" (refuse rapid test). (3) It was clear that a crisis of public trust regarding the government's COVID-19 response was developing in Makassar. The challenge deepened when citizens tried to forcibly seize the corpses of patients who had died in four hospitals, succeeding in three. For example, at Stella Maris Hospital, about 150 people came to take the body of a patient suspected of dying from COVID-19. In another hospital, a crowd even managed to break through a military and police cordon to take a body away. In each case, relatives of the deceased led these crowds, refusing to allow their loved ones to be buried using COVID protocols (which meant placing them in distant cemeteries and burying them in coffins).

The COVID-19 Situation in Makassar

Why did local people act this way? In this article, I argue that local governments' unpreparedness in facing the outbreak, coupled with poor governance, resulted in public distrust of the government's handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The response to the pandemic was hampered by three major factors: intense political rivalries that constrained the government's capacity to impose regulations on the local business community; a high degree of instability in Makassar's political leadership; and weak government capacity in delivering public health services. The crisis of public confidence in Makassar--arguably the worst in Indonesia--points to government failure at the local level, which compounded wider failings at the national level.

Even using official figures--which many observers regard as an underestimate--Indonesia has suffered the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Southeast Asia. As of 14 January 2021, there were 858,043 confirmed cases and 24,951 deaths. (4) At the start of the pandemic, Indonesia's COVID-19 response was described as the fourth worst in the world. (5) Numerous studies have examined the reasons behind this policy failure, including lack of clarity in the government response, conflicts between local and national levels of government, poor-quality health service delivery, public distrust expressed in social media, and corruption. (6) However, such studies have not examined how these problems relate to dynamics at the grassroots level, and their impact on ordinary people's behaviour in responding to the outbreak. This is the approach taken in this case study of Makassar--Indonesia's twelfth most populous city or urban municipality (kota), with a population of 1.6 million people. From the first outbreak of COVID-19 in Makassar in March through to November 2020, the author collected data through interviews, online research and field documentation. The author also conducted a short online survey with 500 respondents on 10-14 November 2020. (7) The survey assessed public satisfaction with the response to COVID-19 and grassroots issues, including beliefs regarding the virus.

Makassar has been one of the hardest hit cities by COVID-19 in Indonesia. By mid-August 2020, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases was 5,938, the fourth-highest...

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