Like many world leaders, Indonesian President Joko Widodo is hoping that 2021 will be a bounce-back year after a terrible 2020. This week he is scheduled to become the first Indonesian vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, kicking off an ambitious plan to vaccinate more than 180 million people in just 15 months.
The Indonesian government says that by rapidly vaccinating two-thirds of its population, it can reach herd immunity, finally bringing to a halt its first wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths, the worst outbreak in south-east Asia. At the same time, Jokowi, as the President is known, hopes the economy will rebound after sliding into its first recession since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998.
But hope is not a strategy. To meet Jokowi’s rightly lofty goals, Australia’s nearest and biggest neighbour will need detailed planning and meticulous execution – two qualities often lacking in the President and the wider bureaucracy.
One element that Jokowi, who was re-elected in 2019 with an increased vote share, does not lack is political capital. He came through an annus horribilis last year with approval ratings that most democratic leaders could only wish for. That was despite his government mishandling the pandemic, two ministers being charged with corruption (including one accused of pilfering COVID-19 relief funds for the poor), nationwide protests against a controversial investment law and disquiet over his inexperienced son and son-in-law jumping into politics.
But Jokowi cannot afford another year of muddling through. Not, at least, without Indonesia paying a high price. More than 24,000 Indonesians have died of COVID-19, with more than 800,000 confirmed cases, according to official data. With some of the world’s lowest testing rates, the real numbers are likely to be multiple times higher. Several hundred doctors and health workers have died because of the disease, further straining a health system already overstretched and underfunded.
On the economic front, millions lost their jobs last year. The tens of millions who struggle to get by in the informal sector as drivers, labourers and food hawkers saw their incomes contract perilously. Technocrats, led by Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, took bold action to stave off the risk of a sharper contraction and a banking collapse. But, on the ground, officials struggled to distribute much-needed assistance to the healthcare system and poor Indonesians, not helped by ministerial malfeasance and incompetence.
Despite the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, Jokowi has rejected pressure from epidemiologists and doctors to use lockdowns. He has argued – with some justification and some dissimulation – that Indonesians are too ill disciplined to comply and that the economic impact would be too grave, with work-from-home not an option for the many who rely on informal jobs.
But, at the same time, the economy cannot truly recover until the pandemic has been brought under control. Nor is there much chance of Australia, and other neighbours that have worked hard to control the pandemic, opening their borders to Indonesia so long as COVID-19 is still rampant. While public health experts have warned that vaccinations are not a silver bullet, Jokowi is acting as if they are – just like many other leaders, and we citizens, who are desperate for an end to the pandemic.
Still, the President is right to set an aggressive target for vaccinations, as they are one of the best tools available for now. However, his government will need to show a step-change in application to achieve it. Other early movers like Britain are already struggling to meet their targets for vaccination. Indonesia starts from a worse position, with bad infrastructure, an ineffective bureaucracy and endemic corruption, as well as widespread scepticism about vaccinations.
Jokowi signalled his intent with a cabinet reshuffle last month, when he replaced the calamitous former health minister (who claimed COVID-19 could be thwarted by prayer) with a respected former banker, and brought in the popular former mayor of Surabaya to replace the Social Affairs Minister who was arrested on graft allegations.
Now, Jokowi and his revamped team must deliver on their promises, in this defining year for his presidency, as he prepares to step down in 2024 because of the constitutional two-term limit.
Beyond the vaccination campaign, they need to generate better data about the extent of the disease, develop a better response to manage outbreaks and find more effective ways to help struggling Indonesians and kick the economy back into gear.
It is an incredibly difficult challenge – one that many far richer nations are struggling with. Jokowi’s government will need to do all this while managing the perennial problems that afflict Indonesia, from natural disasters and plane crashes to simmering tensions with radical Islamist groups.
As I argued in my recently published political biography, Jokowi rose from obscurity to the top of Indonesian politics thanks to a large dose of luck, as well as his natural affinity for politics. Now he must show that he is able to step up in dark times too.
Ben Bland is the director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and author of Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia.