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Govt criticized for forming COVID-19 response team late in the game

The government’s move to establish a new COVID-19 response team to handle the impact the pandemic has had on health and the economy has come too late, as the coronavirus has spread rapidly and paralyzed economic activity, experts have said.

Airlangga University (Unair) public policy expert Agie Nugroho Soegiono said the government’s decision to only now establish an integrated team was a consequence of its previous lack of urgency in dealing with the virus when it first spread across the country earlier this year.

“The government also lacked transparency and was indecisive in terms of health protocols,” he said on Tuesday.

Although neighboring countries like Singapore and Thailand reported their first coronavirus cases in February, Indonesia denied suspicions that the virus had also spread into the country despite the millions of Chinese tourists who were coming in.

Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) economist Latif Adam said on Tuesday that Indonesia was way behind other countries that had quickly reacted when the outbreak began.

“Maybe the government is of the view that it is better late than never,” he told The Jakarta Post over the phone.

The government launched on Monday a new team to tackle both the public health and economic aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic under the National Economic Recovery and COVID-19 Response Team.

“With this integrated team, all the planning and execution of programs regarding the handling of COVID-19 and economic recovery could go hand in hand as both will be handled under the same institutions with good coordination,” Coordinating Economic Minister Airlangga Hartarto, who acts as the response team’s chairperson, said in a press briefing.

Head of the economic recovery task force Budi Gunadi Sadikin and head of the COVID-19 response task force Doni Monardo joined the team to coordinate and integrate the country’s policies on handling the pandemic. They will report to State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) Minister Erick Thohir, the team’s executive chairperson.

The response team comes as coronavirus infections continue to rise at a rapid rate nationwide. Indonesia recorded 1,906 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, putting the total number of infections at over 93,600 from only two in early March, according to official data. The death toll jumped to 4,576 with 117 new fatalities on Thursday.

The pandemic has battered economic activity as shops, offices and factories are forced to close or limit operations to contain the virus. The Indonesian economy grew 2.97 percent in the first quarter from 5.02 percent in 2019 and is expected to shrink by over 5 percent in the second quarter due to the pandemic.

The government has allocated Rp 695.2 trillion (US$47.55 billion) in state budget funds to strengthen the healthcare system and boost economic recovery.

Latif said he expected the government to have better coordination now that there was a clear order of command.

When the virus began spreading in the country, government officials had shown a lack of coordination in handling the pandemic. When the Jakarta administration was planning to suspend intercity and interprovincial buses services in late March to curb contagion, for instance, then-acting transportation minister Luhut Pandjaitan blocked the plan.

In another case, the Industry Ministry issued its own coronavirus guidelines that allowed factories to open even though the Quarantine Law stipulated a suspension of workplace activities.

A member of the House of Representatives Commission IX overseeing health care and manpower, Netty Prasetiyani, asked the government to create more robust health policy on handling the virus.

The government, she said, had been favoring the economy over public health.

“It’s not surprising at all. The budget for the country’s COVID-19 response is being [allocated] half-heartedly. As a result, hospitals are overwhelmed and health workers are dying,” she said on Tuesday.

Read also: Don’t ‘misinterpret new normal’: Govt expects new team to meet health, economic goals

Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (Indef) economist Enny Sri Hartati said on Monday that Indonesia needed better leadership, not just a new government team, as the main problem hindering the country’s COVID-19 response was poor coordination between government ministries and regional administrations.

University of Indonesia rector Ari Kuncoro, however, expressed optimism that the team would be effective in handling the outbreak and the economic recovery as it would have more power, a greater budget and better planning compared to the previous COVID-19 task force.

“This team is putting both health and economy as the top priority, not one over the other, because if the economic wheels are not running, we can’t fund the health efforts to handle this pandemic,” he said.

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