Government and governance, Health | Southeast Asia

15 October 2020

It will take more than just acknowledging a lack of cooperation between regional and central governments for Indonesia to win its ongoing battle against the coronavirus, Hening Wikan writes.

One thing is clear in Indonesia’s COVID-19 response: the central government needed to build an airtight system of command and control to deal with the pandemic’s immediate effects. But simply consolidating power in the central government is not an answer to crises in the long run. Instead, Indonesian policymakers must rethink central-local government relations to prevent friction in future times of crisis.

Following an increase in mortality rates in Jakarta, Governor Anies Baswedan announced the implementation of full large-scale social restrictions (PSBB, for the Indonesian ‘Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar’) after easing them in June.

Re-enforcing PSBB immediately caused concern in the central government, mainly from Airlangga Hartarto, Indonesia’s Coordinating Economic Minister, who also serves as Chairperson of the COVID-19 Handling and National Economic Recovery Committee.

Airlangga mentioned that the announcement affected the stock market as it raised uncertainty for business sector in its execution, and in line with Airlangga’s statement, Akmal Taher, a member of the National COVID-19 Task Force added that they had only heard about the return to restrictions from Anies after his public announcement.

This disharmony between central and local governments in handling the pandemic is not new, but it is not the only issue at hand. It is critical to also identify a lack of co-operation between Indonesia’s regional governments, and to push for a broader restructuring of the Indonesian state.

More on this: What has hampered Indonesia’s COVID-19 response?

As an example, the Governor of South Sulawesi, Nurdin Abdullah, was one of the regional leaders intending to implement PSBB. However, this plan was not carried out in Maros by its regent.

Such disharmony can be perceived as the aftermath of inconsistency in the policies governments first issued to tackle the pandemic. The emergence of initiatives in various forms of local lockdown by regional governments was meant to be regulated centrally, but in practice, this hasn’t been the case.

One problem with this attempt to centralise the coronavirus response has been essentially semantic. Despite attempting to bring PSBB under the central government, the policy actually states that the authority of the central government is merely on determining the status of PSBB proposed by regional government, rather than fully regulating or proposing PSBB restrictions itself.

Nor does it refer to previous Indonesian law, which distinctly regulated the distribution of government affairs to each level of government, or take into account the impact of its implementation on the rest of government.

Considering the unique demands of controlling the coronavirus outbreak, it is only reasonable to attempt to centralise a government’s response, but in this case, central government needs to do more. It must build coherent coordination with regional government in two ways.

More on this: Podcast: A precarious position – Indonesia’s workers in the pandemic

First, it must focus on sending clearer messages to the public about the policies it issues to handle the crisis. This will allow it to maintain national solidarity and build community resilience.

Second, as suggested by researchers, the central government needs to appoint a leading actor authorised to coordinate any measures required of all levels of government in Indonesia that pertain to containing the spread of COVID-19.

For the time being, the central government’s attempt to do this appears to be solely developing the former National COVID-19 Task Force into a new COVID-19 Handling and National Economic Recovery Committee, with a number of extra ministers joining essentially the same old team.

This does not address issues with central-regional government relations, nor what role regional leaders should have in responding to the pandemic.

It is also necessary for the government to consider how its response can utilise existing structures of government such as the National Agency for Disaster Management and Regional Agency for Disaster Management, two bodies that have not co-operated to their full potential in the pandemic response.

The current system of central-regional government relations is meant to be primarily aimed at establishing a space in which to compromise and deliberate, rather than pursue urgent action.

Once this is all said and done, attempts to restructure the state permanently would be no surprise, and would be welcome if executed right, as simply acknowledging this problem during one crisis is not enough. There is hope for this. After all, the pandemic mess does show that dialogue on central-regional government relations in Indonesia is not dead, yet.

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