Community engagement is key to check virus

Hakim Hayat

As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected two million people and claimed over 180,000 lives, community cooperation is now more vital than ever in stemming the tide.

It was the viewpoint shared recently by Venkatachalam Anbu-mozhi, senior energy economist at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA).

According to the economist, community engagement is a pre-requisite for risk mitigation, which includes effective communication, transmission of valid information on the coronavirus threat, sharing of proper testing practices and combatting of social stigma.

In Indonesia, he said, the coronavirus has now spread to 32 out of its 34 provinces.

According to the latest data from John Hopkins University, in the world’s third most populous country, the number of cases surpassed the 7,000 mark (as of yesterday) and the death toll at 647.

A view of a rural region in Indonesia

Anbumozhi, who is based in Jakarta, said for a country with a population of 255 million, the data translates to 0.1 cases per one million people, compared to 56 per million in China, 591 per million in Italy, 207 per million in Iran, 316 per million in Spain and 431 per million in the United States (US).

“The possibility of Indonesia’s reported cases being grossly understated, due to the extremely small number of tests being carried out, cannot be ruled out,” he said, adding that the lack of sufficient can be attributed to the country’s lack of preparedness for the epidemic.

Earlier in April, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced that in lieu of a national lockdown, physical distancing rules should be enforced in their fight against the outbreak.

Anbumozhi said when “a strong demand for coronavirus control remains absent due to a deficient threat perception”, it results in “strict containment measures, such as a lockdown, being left in the hands of regional governments” and he believed what it signifies is the failure of the Indonesian government in communicating the threat of the virus to the people.

He said while the communications mechanisms have served the upper- and middle-class segments in Jakarta quite well, for rural regions, community engage-ment becomes essential in contain-ing the exponential growth of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Community engagement in Jakarta has, up until now, comprised engaging of local officials, dissemination of information in print and digital media and calls for voluntary participation,” he said.

Anbumozhi believed that communal efforts are imperative, akin to the production of face masks, test kits and ventilators, warding off COVID-19 threats.

“(Community engagement) has to embrace the remotest community proponents that enjoy the community’s confidence and should be perceived as an impartial stakeholders,” he said.

The greater challenge, he said, is the presence of naysayers in the government and among non-state agents, who believe that the country is too far into the epidemic to focus on risk communication. He believed the best way to circumvent such a challenge is by focussing on community engagement, which “is more than just risk mitigation; it is the foundation for social capital, the need for which will only be felt more acutely as the outbreak worsens across the country”.

The ERIA economist saw several factors in determining the effectiveness of community engagement, and among them “the blend of local culture, values and beliefs which could lead to casual disregard for the COVID-19 threat and gravely endanger containment efforts by the government”.

He also saw the possibility of resentment and non-cooperation from the community due to “livelihoods being threatened by lockdowns, as witnessed among migrant workers in the informal economy of the greater Jakarta area”. With weak social support system, he said, Indonesia cannot afford monetary compensations that have been churned out in Europe and the US.

“Even the entitled modest relief package could face a delay in reaching targetted groups,” he said. Thus, he believed that there is an “increased likelihood of repeated quarantines if the virus bounces back in several localities as in the case of China, Iran and Italy”, which will expose the trust deficit between health frontliners and the public.

“Indonesian central and local governments,” the economist said, “should plan for the best and prepare for the worst.”

He said, “The next few months could be troublesome (for Indonesia). But things should start to look up afterwards.”