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Lessons to be Learned: Indonesia’s Progress Towards ‘Health & Well-being’ Amidst COVID-19

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Number 3 – ‘Good Health and Well-being’ has unsurprisingly come under threat this year, particularly for Indonesia. Although the virus may be temporarily setting back Indonesia’s progress towards achieving this SDG in the short term, the pandemic may in fact facilitate the actualization of future policy settings mentioned in the Roadmap of SDGs Indonesia: the country’s principal guide to achieving progress towards the SDGs. The present health crisis presents an opportunity for Indonesia to learn important lessons about how the country can bring progress towards good health and well-being back on track.

The Set-back

The immediate crisis in Indonesia’s health infrastructure can be seen through data published by the Indonesian Ministry of Health which reveals that currently the country only has 132 COVID-19 referral hospitals for more than 250 million inhabitants. This suggests only a few hospitals have the advanced medical equipment to handle COVID-19 which could cause calamity if transmission of the virus cannot be contained. This data also means many people do not have equal access to health facilities and services.

(Source: CSIS, 2020)

This current pandemic means that patients with weaker immune systems, are at higher risk of being infected. Even worse, many people are choosing to sacrifice their health to go to work so that they can maintain their economic survival. This situation, as shown by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) COVID-19 tracker, has led Indonesia to have the second highest COVID-19 cases recorded in Southeast Asia with the highest mortality rate in Asia.

Lessons Learned From the Outbreak

In my opinion, the pandemic could play a critical role as an ‘ideal situation’ for the government to research and discover the weaknesses of the domestic health system and develop best practices for facing upcoming possible global health risks. Effective policy which addresses the root of the problem may also help the country back on track in achieving SDG Number 3. But, how?

People wearing masks queuing outside
People queue to enter one of the MRT stations in Jakarta due to daily operational restrictions on mass transportation. (Source: The Jakarta Post, 2020)

The pandemic shows how poor Indonesia’s global health crisis early warning system is. When the novel virus was first identified in China in December 2019, the government of Indonesia seemed to belittle the outbreak. Instead of imposing travel restrictions and closing international entry points in the early stages of the outbreak, the government chose to encourage people to travel. In February 2020, President Joko Widodo announced that the central government had allocated Rp 298.5 billion towards incentivising tourism, though by this time they had already cancelled flights to mainland China. Eventually, the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in Indonesia in early March, and from then onwards cases have continued to surge.

The current situation exposes the fact that Indonesia lacks adequate health facilities and services. A 2015 World Bank survey revealed that there were only 1.2 hospital beds for every 1,000 people in Indonesia. The data proved that there is an imbalance between health facilities and the whole population. In the context of the pandemic this means that infected patients can’t be treated properly while non-coronavirus patients are threatened to be sidelined due to a lack of facilities.

Since physical distancing and large-scale social restrictions have been introduced, the present strategy has not had a significant impact on lessening the number of people infected. People are still doing activities outside without obeying health protocols and some of them make long trips back to their hometown or village, increasing the risk of virus transmission. Without strong cooperation, ending the health crisis will be difficult.

Crowd of people standing outside a McDonalds
The ceremonial closure of McDonald’s Sarinah after 30 years of operation led to public mass gatherings despite large scale social restrictions.
(Source: The Jakarta Post, 2020)

Call for action

The outbreak should be seen as a wakeup call for the Indonesian government. Health systems should be prioritized and more of the national budget should be allocated to improve the quality as well as the number of hospitals, medical equipment, and personnel.

Currently there is a lot of misleading information that makes many people confused about how to respond to the situation properly. Effective communication between the government and civil society must be established to ensure the health and disease-related information can be conveyed properly. This can be done by ensuring transparent and consistent information as well as upholding inclusive communication (making information understandable for everyone, including people with disability) through a centralised information platform. Also, the Indonesian government needs to strengthen its international cooperation with ASEAN member states after they have established the ASEAN Centre for Sustainable Development Studies and Dialogue and recently launched the Declaration of the Special ASEAN Summit on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Ultimately, the pandemic has threatened Indonesia’s progress towards health and well-being. Nevertheless, this can bring about momentum to bounce back by evaluating health facilities and services, government responsiveness, and people-to-government cooperation. Moreover, this can be a stepping stone for the Indonesian government in formulating a better future SDG policy on health and well-being particularly on budget allocation for health, communication and information for global health risk mitigation, and cooperation on health with ASEAN.

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