Failing to deliver coherency: Indonesian government’s COVID-19 policy communication

Written: Ilham Akhsanu Ridlo

The World Health Organization (WHO), through The International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, declared the COVID-19 pandemic as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30 January 2020 (Li et al., 2020). During the last year, many countries have been struggling to curb COVID-19 infections by applying various policies, ranging from mobilising healthcare facilities to a stricter policy, such as restricting human mobility or implementing lockdowns. Policies and regulations aimed at controlling the outbreak have brought about severe consequences for the public, especially Indonesia as a developing country. On 21 April 2021, the Indonesian government reported 1,620,569 (5720 new) confirmed cases of COVID-19, 44,007 (230 new) deaths, and 1,475,456 recovered cases from 510 districts across all 34 provinces (World Health Organization, 2021).

At the outset of the pandemic, the Indonesian government was reluctant to adopt a stricter containment policy since they were afraid of harming economic development. This is evident from the initial response to the pandemic where, instead of adequately preparing epidemiological interventions, the government denied the fact that a severe pandemic was approaching. On the contrary, the government saw “the overseas outbreak” as an opportunity to push the tourism sector. This was the reason for the issuance of a presidential mandate on 25 February 2020. The mandate aimed to stimulate the growth of the tourism sector by disbursing fund to pay social media influencers as a part of the strategy to boost the tourism sector. Attempting to target foreign tourists, the government allocated Rp7,2 billion for social media campaign (Aziz, 2020; Gorbiano, 2020).

At this stage, various high-ranking officials kept denying the possibility of an outbreak in numerous public statements. Taking Mahfud MD’s case as an example, the Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal, and Security Affairs made a controversial joke on his personal Twitter account by posting his selfie with Airlangga Hartanto, the Coordinating Minister of Economy, by saying that the virus would not possibly exist in Indonesia due to its convoluted bureaucracy (Mahfud, 2020).

After confirming the first COVID-19 case on 2 March 2020, Indonesia slowly began to appoint 100 referral hospitals, created national data referrals, and formed a COVID-19 task force. The government had attempted to restrict human mobility during the Eid holidays. Unfortunately, the policy was far from successful since the policy was not adhering to the local quarantine concept, deviating from many epidemiological experts’ suggestions (Syakriah, 2020). There was a lot of confusion surrounding the policy since Jokowi made a public statement saying that pulang kampung was different from mudik. While his administration strictly forbade the latter, the former was not (KOMPASTV, 2020). The incoherent policy was a source of frustration for many provincial leaders affected by the virus since they wanted a coordinated stricter measure to reduce COVID-19 cases (Mietzner, 2020).

Despite the emergency, now former Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto has called on the public to remain calm in the face of the possible spread of the novel coronavirus. He advised people to keep their bodies and minds pure to maintain immunity as a powerful way to avoid being infected with the fast-spreading virus. The Health Minister said preventing infection was easy, no vaccine for the pneumonia-like ailment yet, but to confront the virus with the power of our minds (Aqil, 2020). Minister Terawan also placed himself at the centre of the dispute by claiming that the seemingly controlled situation was a blessing from the Almighty. Terawan raised doubt and even snubbed Harvard’s research findings highlighting the possibility of existing infections in Indonesia (Beo Da Costa, 2020).

Many human rights activists, scientists, and journalists from various mainstream media have long criticised the lack of transparency regarding the COVID-19 data. The suspicion arose when there was an apparent discrepancy between the official number of cases reported at the national level with the sum of cases reported on the provincial governments’ websites. Rather than improving public access to testing and other crucial epidemiological indicators, the authorities were keener on abusing the internet defamation laws to censure laypeople for vilifying the government or allegedly spreading false information regarding the pandemic. Human Rights Watch highly criticised this approach, let alone the fact that the Indonesian government failed to fulfil the citizen’s right to access clear, regular, and factually accurate information about the COVID-19 transmission (Djalante et al., 2020; Indonesia, 2020).

Indonesia’s health crisis so far cannot be separated from how the government responded to the pandemic in the critical first six months. This failure was mainly due to the lack of coherence in communicating policies and the inability to translate scientific expertise into a concrete, coordinated measure. This lack of coherence is perhaps rooted in an increase in populism anti-scientific sentiments, religious conservatism, religious-political polarisation, corruptions, and clientelism, and assertiveness among anti-democratic actors (Mietzner, 2020). This is evident in the efforts made by the government at the onset of the pandemic, which was diverged from the majority opinions of well-known epidemiologists (‘Top Indonesian Doctors’, 2020).

Managing public information about a health crisis is becoming more complicated because public spaces, such as social media, are contaminated with noises and distractions. Controversy over quarantine or lockdown policies has been sparked by ‘unofficial political buzzers’ (Hermawan, 2020). The buzzers played an essential role in throwing issues on Twitter and creating narratives to become trending topics and viral. Therefore, the buzzers were beyond mere political campaign warfare (Perlmutter, 2008; Towner & Dulio, 2012). Twitter is seen as an important platform because any issue that is trending guarantees extensive coverage in the mainstream media (Conway et al., 2015). In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the buzzers often notoriously attack any criticism directed to the government regarding its pandemic responses (Felicia & Loisa, 2019; Sugiono, 2020). The buzzers might be sometimes valuable for drawing public support by amplifying government policies on social media but unavoidably unleash more controversy than trust (Prima, 2021).

Until now, the government and health workers have struggled to engage with the general public about the infection risk since there is yet an established practice of scientific communication in Indonesian society. Meanwhile, risk communication is a combination of two aspects, namely internal communication and external communication. Internal communication refers to situations in which experts should inform the policymakers about what policies should be taken in dealing with the health crisis. Furthermore, external communication involves bringing over the stakeholders about the negative consequences of not taking an appropriate measure as well as conveying risks to the broader community (Alaszewski, 2005; Ataguba & Ataguba, 2020; Zhang et al., 2020). In dealing with the pandemic, the nexus between the public, media and policy is more crucial than ever. While media studies focus primarily on the people, policy studies are concerned with presenting the government agenda to the public. On the other hand, the media can influence both the public and the policymaking process. Putting media in the same frame with health policy is rarely researched in science communication studies (Wolfe et al., 2013).

Science communication is currently facing a new challenge, especially in the post-truth era. A sheer number of social media contents that focus its issues on health information (e.g. vaccinations, immunisations, pandemics and alternative medicine) could quickly get viral, but most of them are unfortunately inaccurate and dangerously erode public trust in health authorities and professionals. Misinformation is defined as wrong or inaccurate information, and this inaccuracy is based on misunderstanding and misguided delivery of fact (Jaques et al., 2019). This definition contrasts with disinformation, which contains intentionally deceptive messages, spear phishing, and propaganda to mislead the public. The term “misinformation” and “disinformation” has been associated with false news neologisms and sometimes are used interchangeably (Woolley, 2016).

During the Indonesian pandemic, some government officials contributed to the amplification of COVID-19 misinformation. As an example, a joint statement made by the Head of the Presidential Office and the Central Java Governor regarding Covid-19 death caused an outcry. The officials suggested redefining COVID-related deaths since, they thought, some deaths were more reasonably related to comorbidity than COVID-19 (Farasonalia, 2020). The statement resonated with the common suspicion that hospitals and healthcare workers had used COVID-19 diagnosis for gaining profit (Hospital Association Slams Govt for Claiming False COVID-19 Diagnoses by Doctors, 2020). Misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic on the grassroots might be related to the low level of trust in the government, especially in how they communicate their policies. A lesson learned during the first year of battling with the pandemic, policy communication is proven to be the key aspect of the outbreak response (World Health Organization, 2017).

Policy communication is a process that should contain an element of trust, credibility, honesty, transparency and accountability about information sources (Glik, 2007; Kuklinski et al., 2000). This is where policy communication can play an essential role in bridging scientific evidence, the context of policy, and public/collective actions. Also, it is essential to undertake extensive research as a lesson learned, had Indonesians had to battle with similar health crises in the future; what is gone entirely wrong with the Indonesian government’s strategy in communicating their health policy to the public.


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