Politics of Pandemic: What the government needs to know

Source: The Economist, 2020.

Throughout the week, my online attention has been drawn to COVID-19 related news and contents. One struck me most. The Economist’s March 14, 2020 edition provided me with a framework to think, consider, and (probably) calculate how and to what extent governments can succeed in handling the COVID-19 outbreak in their respective countries.

The Economist March 14, 2020 Edition.

In considering how can a government succeed in addressing public concern and the COVID-19 itself, according to The Economist, there are three crucial things that need to be taken into account.

Paraphrasing, those three things are:

  • First, government’s attitude towards uncertainty. Elaborately, how does a government react to uncertainties revolving around COVID-19?
  • Second, structure and readiness of health care system. This point tries to examine whether or not the health care system in a given country able to cope with COVID-19 — health care and the environment surrounding the provision of health care services depend a lot on government’s (and the lack thereof) intervention.
  • Third, trust in government.

By using these three “indicators”, we can try to examine, by learning from other countries’ experiences in addressing COVID-19, a given country’s probability of success in dealing with the public, and subsequently addressing the most pressing issue at the moment: the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the sake of the richness of the discussion, much examples will be taken from how the Government of Indonesia has been trying to address the pandemic since day 1.

Governments around the world reacted differently when they first found the firsts COVID-19 cases in their respective territories. For example, the Municipal (or rather, the Regional) Government of Wuhan exercised what is known as “denial” for the first days of when the COVID-19 cases were found in their jurisdiction — this happened far back in December 2019, which as a response the Chinese Central Government took the action to replace the regional officials found to be involved in this neglect later in 2020.

On the other hand, South Korea has been very alert since day one; imposing strict measures such as mass testing in numerous spots in the country. Other countries, like Malaysia, chose to impose lockdown. Thailand, Singapore, and not until recently, Indonesia, imposed restriction to travel, suggested Work from Home (WFH) measures for offices, and closed schools among others.

All these measures are taken in the middle of uncertainties. No one knew how the virus spread in the first days of the pandemic. No one knew how long will the virus stay. And there are gazillion other questions that were left unanswered in the first days. Yet, these countries react to uncertainties with certain actions.

South Korea, as a result of their strict measures, is among the first countries to seemingly have been able to flatten the curve (see Picture 1). While in China, the number kept increasing and did not go down until strict measures such as lockdown in the city of Wuhan took place (see Picture 2).

Picture 1: The Flattening Curve in South Korea (Source: The New York Times)
Picture 2: The Flattening Curve in Mainland China (Source: The New York Times)

On the one hand, the Government of Indonesia took measures to boost the economy in the early days of the pandemic. One of these is done by hiring social media influencers to promote tourism. While it is understandable that the Government of Indonesia is trying to not make people panic and trying to keep the economy stable, among other things, these measures have been stormed by nation-wide criticism by the public.

On the other hand, the National Government suggested people to work from home (despite without being accompanied with a more forceful measure to implement it). The National Government has also announced that COVID-19 is a national disaster, and through the National Disaster Management Authority (The Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana, BNPB) is trying to contain the spread and further negative impacts of the virus. It is not until recently that the Regional Government of Jakarta announced a 14-days suspension of numerous public facilities, such as bars, massage place, cinema, etc.

Whether or not the Government of Indonesia, or any national government, will succeed, will be determined by how they react to uncertainties.

In short, in countries with excellent health care system, it is expected that COVID-19 patients will receive a more responsive, prompt, and holistic services — and vice versa; in countries where health care system is not yet adequate, which is exacerbated by red tapes along its processes, most people can only pray they could avoid the virus.

The success of the Government of Indonesia, or again, any other government, will be determined by how patients are not left queueing in hospitals and ER* to get the help they need — and whether the government is allocating money and effort to test more people, to avoid more casualties.

*Emergency Room or Emergency Department.

Trust in government holds and plays a big role in driving the rate of success vis-a-vis government’s PR to the public. The Economist’s article that I read took the example of Iran to describe how awful a deep distrust in the government can play in further exacerbating the situation.

The Iranian government has long been unpopular among its citizens — given that the country is led by an autocratic and undemocratic dictator, given the chains of protests condemning the authoritarian government, given the food shortage, and other government’s incapacity in handling public matters.

Due to deep distrust in the government, as The Economist, has taken as an example, when the government called to shut public gatherings for prayers, clerics (ulema, religious leaders) in Iran defy the government and insisted on holding mass gatherings and prayers.

Whether or not the Government of Indonesia, or any government will succeed, will be determined by public trust to the government too.

Nothing stokes rumour and fear more than the suspicion that politicians are hiding the truth. When they downplay the threat in a misguided attempt to avoid panic, they end up sowing confusion and costing lives. Yet leaders have struggled to come to terms with the pandemic and how to talk about it.

The Economist, March 14, 2020 Edition

Opinions expressed are personal.

International Relations enthusiast

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store