Better Transparency and Collaboration will Help Indonesia’s Effort in Handling COVID-19

The way the Indonesian government has handled the spread of COVID-19 has left some bewildered and confused. A wave of public responses and skepticism has put the government under fire due to its slowness in mitigating the pandemic and reluctance for being open about the lethality of the virus.

According to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, the death toll caused by COVID-19 stands at 122, with 1,414 confirmed cases. With such numbers, Indonesia has one of the highest rates of infection in South Asia.

Fortunately, these escalating cases have now spurred the government to act. Several belated measures have been taken such as physical distancing, work-from-home campaigns, closure of public facilities, mass gathering cancellations, rapid testing, and soon, lockdowns. However, there are no guarantees that the Indonesian government can utilize all the available resources in the country or have the capacity to implement decisions effectively.

To do so, both central and regional authorities must put public interest above their political differences — and start employing three collective strategies — to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19.

First, data and information transparency plays a crucial role in giving the public updated information, communicating policy direction, and maintaining trust in the government.

Citizens need to be equipped with access to relevant and clear information regarding the latest conditions in their regions. This information needs to include health facilities and their capacities, number of positive cases, distribution area, and background story on how some patients became infected without revealing their personal identities. In some countries in the world and several regions in Indonesia, data and information remains relatively unknown.

If this data and information could be accessible to all, public communication made by the government could better be delivered with evidence that will strengthen the policy direction. It would be better if policies could be made in real-time.

To give an example, the Singaporean Ministry of Health releases a background story about recent public events that have caused some positive cases. With such real-time and open information, the citizens who have also attended that particular event could be called to participate in rapid testing immediately.

So far, Indonesia has already adopted such COVID-19 portals at a national and regional level which visualize current statistics and distribution maps. However, both the central and regional governments need to be more honest in order to stimulate public participation and collaboration. None of these portals provide specific information about case chronologies, patients’ characteristics, and links between previous cases. Moreover, updated GIS data on the virus strain in Indonesia and its transmission pattern could not be found whereas this information is essential for determining the number of potential carriers that should be tested and the type of treatment to be carried out.

Second, COVID-19 requires extensive participation. It should be noted that by opening access to data and information, the government implicitly admits its limited capabilities and resources to handle an existing crisis that definitely cannot be solved alone.

It is no longer considered ‘disgraceful’ when a government adopts the openness norm amid the current circumstance full of anxiety and uncertainty; rather, it should be perceived as an opportunity to work closely with the citizens. In fact, admitting deficiencies and scarcities is vital to making sure everyone is informed. With more informed and educated citizens, expected collective actions could be done on a larger scale and at a quicker pace.

In addition, the knowledge that is shared will also open the doors for public consultation by experts and scientists who might assist policymakers to make better and measurable decisions, equipped with adequate evidence.

Lastly, massive collaboration could possibly be conducted even at the microlevel. Nationwide awareness pulls society together and leverages social cohesion because they have something in common to fight: an emergency situation attributable to the virus. By being fully aware of the situation, public solidarity will likely be heightened and drive people to self-organize themselves into a meaningful cause.

Thus, citizens tend to reach their head of community or neighborhood and arrange the best options available at their capability like initiating autonomous quarantine or campaigning for donation. Not only does it grow an ingrained sense of society’s autonomy and self-governance in a period of prolonged crisis, but it also strengthens the social fabric irrespective of one’s ethnic background and social class. The society per se has its own mechanism to endure hardship, which in turn leads to the formation of social resilience that stands the test of time.

Indonesia’s initial response to the global pandemic might be unfortunate. But Indonesia can learn from both Singapore and South Korea who have taught meaningful lessons that being open and honest in facing uncertainties is a necessary act to inform the citizens that COVID-19 cannot be solved by the government alone.

By being more transparent and honest, the government will be better supported and informed to take a more rigorous and strategic policy, particularly when it comes to saving lives in face of the limited time we have.

At the moment, the world races with the virus — an invisible enemy we all face on a daily basis — therefore reducing the massive panic and preventing social unrest would only be possible if the steps taken by all stakeholders backed up with real-time data, clear information, and evidence.

It is hoped that more governments and other relevant stakeholders will consider these approaches and work collectively with citizens as a better team.