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As COVID-19 deaths in Indonesia continue to rise, economic recovery remains front and center

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Obed Humutur was heartbroken when he was forced to sell his beloved keyboard.

The professional musician has not been able to perform in bars and cafes in Jakarta since the pandemic struck.

“I’m disappointed that we don’t have any income. We don’t do anything at all for six months and there isn’t enough support for us,” he told ABC.

Mr Humutur said the only support he had received so far was a monthly government health care plan that included rice, canned sardines, instant noodles and cookies.

A man playing the keyboard in a cafe in Jakarta, Indonesia
Obed Humutur hopes the Indonesian government will provide more support to those working in the informal sector.(Provided)

He is among the millions of Indonesians who are out of work due to economic pressures from COVID-19.

And things are likely to get worse for informal workers in Jakarta like Mr. Humutur.

The city returned this week in two weeks of partial lockdown, known as large-scale social restrictions.

The measures were ordered by Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, who, like other provincial leaders, has occasionally clashed with President Joko Widodo’s government over its handling of the pandemic.

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan (center) wears a mask as he helps carry a coffin.
Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan (center) said further partial lockdowns were needed to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system.(Twitter: @aniesbaswedan)

Mr Baswedan warned that without the renewed restrictions, hospitals would reach full capacity in Jakarta, where new cases averaged 1,000 a day over the past month.

But the president’s allies criticized the move.

Gembong Warsono, leader of Mr. Widodo’s PDIP party in the Jakarta local parliament, called for the restrictions to be completely lifted.

“Stopping activities in all sectors will be a big blow to the poor,” he said.

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Lockout resistance

In February, as countries like Australia prepared to close their borders, Mr Widodo’s government paid travel influencers nearly $ 8 million to promote Indonesian tourism.

Andri Satrio Nugroho, a researcher at the Jakarta-based Institute for Economic Development and Finance (INDEF), said Indonesia should instead have closed its borders and implemented strict health protocols like those imposed during the 2003 SARS epidemic.

The INDEF recommended that the government in March prioritize public health over the economy.

“It would have avoided having to go back to partial lockdown now,” Nugroho said.

As Indonesia approached its biggest holiday, Eid al-Fitr, at the end of May, authorities were reluctant to prevent citizens from carrying out the traditional mass exodus to their hometown, known locally as Mudik.

Almost exactly two weeks after the holidays, daily cases topped 1,000 for the first time.

The cases have now exceeded 225,000 and Indonesia has the highest death toll in the region.

Yet in early September, the director general of the Indonesian health ministry, Abdul Kadir, warned against reintroducing the restrictions, saying it would exacerbate Indonesia’s economic woes.

Doctors pray behind a line graph depicting the significant decline in Indonesia's GDP in 2020.
The Indonesian economy is expected to contract significantly in 2020.(ABC News: Graphic by Jarrod Fankhauser)

“If we [go into] lockout or restrictions [again], what happens? The economy will not move and our country is going into recession, ”he said.

The Department of Health did not respond to the ABC’s request for comment.

Epidemiologists say Indonesia’s first wave is not over.

“I believe we have yet to reach the peak which may be longer than we expected,” said Herawati Sudoyo, senior researcher at the Jakarta-based Ejikman Institute for Molecular Biology.

The country is also facing its first recession since the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which sparked mass protests, riots and a political crisis that led to the downfall of President Suharto.

“This is going to make an Indonesian president a little nervous,” said Jeffrey Neilson of the Sydney South-East Asia Center.

People cross a main road in Jakarta.
Jakarta is apparently under partial lockdown for the next fortnight.(AP: Tatan Syuflana)

Modest aid to the poor

The Asian Development Bank forecast this month that Indonesia’s economy will contract by 1% in 2020, possibly pushing millions of people into poverty. despite the fact that the country has earmarked 695.2 trillion rupees ($ 63.9 billion) for economic stimulus this year, much of which is earmarked for social assistance to the poor.

Dr Neilson said that while the recovery was relatively weak compared to other countries, Indonesia was in a better place to deal with an economic crisis than it was two decades ago.

A taxi rickshaw walks past a mural publicizing the coronavirus disease in Jakarta.
The Indonesian government’s handling of the pandemic has come under fire as the country tries to ward off the coronavirus, as this mural shows.(Reuters: Mai Dinar Ulfiana)

“There is a cash payment system for the poor despite its shortcomings and possible corruption,” he said.

“It bodes reasonably well.”

Nonetheless, Economic Affairs Minister Airlangga Hartarto revealed this week that only about a third of the stimulus funds have been spent so far.

The inability to effectively prevent the spread of the coronavirus led Mr. Widodo to establish the COVID-19 and National Economic Recovery Management Committee at the end of July.

Budi Gunadi Sadikin, chairman of the committee, told a seminar last week that he believed, “Leadership in the current era of COVID-19 must be held by experts and medical professionals.”

“This crisis is very different from previous economic crises as it was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, so all energy, budgetary, targeted and political responses must be aimed at managing health issues,” said Sadikin, who is not a public health body. expert, but rather the Indonesian deputy minister in charge of public enterprises and a former banker.

Mr Widodo’s government remains keen to push through the so-called omnibus bill, a controversial and sweeping package of labor market reforms aimed largely at attracting foreign investment.

Unions and community groups say the bill in its current form will further erode workers’ rights.

A woman wearing a hijab and a face mask looks at a coronavirus-themed banner in Jakarta.
Authorities in Jakarta have warned that hospitals in the city are approaching capacity.(AP: Achmad Ibrahim)

“It has the potential to leave human rights violations unchallenged and give employers dangerous leeway to exploit workers,” said Amnesty International Director Usman Hamid.

President remains popular despite COVID-19 numbers

Despite his perceived shortcomings in the response to COVID-19, Mr Widodo remains popular.

A survey conducted by pollster Maiful Mujani in August found that 67% of Indonesians were satisfied or very satisfied with the president.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo wears a face shield and black mask during a meeting in Jakarta.
The controversial labor reforms did not significantly dent Mr. Widodo’s approval rating.(Office of the Indonesian President)

According to Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Lowy Institute, Mr. Widodo’s focus on keeping the economy running is key to this popularity.

“On the one hand, the government has not done a great job. On the other hand, I think people understand the president’s attention to the economy,” Bland recently told ABC.

But for Mr. Humutur, the mixed messages from different levels of government have been a source of immense frustration.

“I have already given up to be honest,” he said.

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