COVIDcast Episode 4: Crisis Looms in Southeast Asia
People collapsing in the street with respiratory problems. Doctors forced to use raincoats in place of proper protective equipment. And one of the world’s highest reported death rates from COVID-19. Indonesia is facing a looming crisis as the government’s tardy and piecemeal response to the coronavirus outbreak compounds the pressures on its over-stretched and under-funded health system.
In episode 4 of COVIDcast, Lowy Institute’s Executive Director, Michael Fullilove, sat down with Ben Bland, Director of our Southeast Asia Program and resident expert on Indonesia’s political system, to discuss the depth of the challenge facing Australia’s largest neighbour, and the response from President Joko Widodo.
It’s not a simple question of democracy versus authoritarianism but a question of whether states had prepared properly and were able to deploy their power quickly and effectively with the support of their population.
Each week since the severity of the coronavirus crisis became clear, Lowy Institute experts have been sitting down to discuss the implications of coronavirus for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Episodes one, two and three are already online, and this is the fourth instalment in the series, which we’ll be continuing on a weekly basis as this crisis unfolds.
This episode focused on how Indonesia, and the rest of Southeast Asia, is faring amid the global pandemic. Our Institute experts discussed the varying political responses across the region, the impending economic crunch and impact of geopolitics.
Bland, who is working on an upcoming Lowy Institute Paper about the Indonesian president, highlighted how Jokowi, as he is popularly known, has been caught flat-footed by the crisis:
[Jokowi] has a very “nuts and bolts” approach to managing the country, very focused on the economy, and I think that’s really caught him flat-footed in this case. With such a big crisis, tactics, which is really his specialty, is not enough. You need a strategy, you need powers of organisation, of delegation, of control, of narrative and communication … whereas he’s a guy who likes to see and do. What he needs to do is coordinate his team properly and that hasn’t been happening.
Bland and Fullilove also discussed whether authoritarian governments, which are the norm in Southeast Asia, have been more effective in responding to the pandemic. Bland argued that it wasn’t a simple question of democracy versus authoritarianism but a question of whether states had prepared properly and were able to deploy their power quickly and effectively with the support of their population. Singapore and Vietnam had been successful on that front, at least in combatting the first wave of the pandemic, but Thailand and Malaysia less so.
The deepening coronavirus crisis is likely to drive Southeast Asian governments to implement even more draconian measures in the months ahead, at a time when authoritarianism already seems to be on the rise. Bland argued that, in the region and beyond, governments will not rush to give up these expanded powers, adding to the pressures on global democracy:
One thing I do think we’ve seen in pretty much every country in the world, including developed and consolidated democracies, is a sense that more authoritarian or draconian measures are needed, and at the same time, fear, that once those measures have come in…[they] won’t retreat so easily.
COVIDcast is a pop-up podcast for anyone interested in understanding the effect of coronavirus on global politics, hosted by our resident experts and powered by the Lowy Institute, with production assistance from Madeleine Nyst and Erin Bassett.