Comment: Why people in Indonesia act as if the pandemic is over


  • Focus
  • Wednesday, 01 Jul 2020

Jakartans cycle and jog along Jl. MH Thamrin in Central Jakarta on Car Free Day (CFD) on June 21. The crowded revival of the weekly event prompted the city administration to once again suspend CFD over public health concerns. —The Jakarta Post/ANN

WITH the highest number of infections and largest death toll in Southeast Asia, the Indonesian government should be careful in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the "new normal" began several weeks ago, people have otherwise eased restrictions and neglected the health protocols.

Recently, when I went out for the first time after three months of self-seclusion, I wondered how people could behave like this amid a pandemic.

I saw people in Jakarta eating out without even practising social distancing, a lot of people roaming without face masks in public spaces, children playing on streets even in “red zones”, and my social media account was overwhelmed by other people’s updates on gatherings and social events.

Even many promiment Indonesian figures ignored the health protocols in the wake of the new normal.

For example, the media reported that Corruption Eradication Commission chief Firli Bahuri did not wear a mask in public, and Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan shook hands with people during Jakarta’s anniversary celebration on June 22. Although such acts look "simple" or "less important" they show that the much-needed behavioral changes to slow the spread of the virus remain challenging.

After about four months since Indonesia announced the first Covid-19 infection, the severity of the pandemic has worsened, with around 1,000 people infected on a daily basis. Despite the fact that Indonesia tops the number of infections and death rates in Southeast Asia, the government and the people seems to choose a relatively "soft" approach in the fight against the pandemic.

This pandemic shows how predictably irrational we are as humans. Despite the upward infection curve, we have already eased restrictions required to contain the virus transmission to allow the economy and social life to resume.

Lockdown, social and physical distancing have been hard to bear for most of us. The more restrictive the government measures, the more people want to break the rules. The high compliance needed to beat the pandemic is difficult to achieve.

Several behavioural science insights might explain the phenomena, which may not be characteristically Indonesia.

Hyperbolic discounting refers to the tendency for people to value a smaller-sooner reward over a larger-later reward as the delay occurs sooner rather than later. In this case, they value small freedoms rather than long-term community health later. Many behavioral scientists suggest that if we start to adopt stricter rules to change people’s behavior amid the pandemic and incrementally ease restrictions, it will have a more significant impact on people’s overall happiness, rather than starting with light restrictions and gradually intensify them.

In Indonesia’s case, the government has taken a relatively soft and ambiguous approach since the outbreak began. In early January and February 2020, when neighboring countries declared the first case of infection and started to impose behavioural engineering to halt the virus spread. Indonesia was still busy confirming whether there was an outbreak, although several foreigners had reportedly been infected in Bali.

When the Asean neighbours implemented national lockdowns, the Indonesian government opted to leave the policy to local authorities. Even President Joko Widodo called on the nation to not panic and coexist with the virus. Hence, from the behavioral perspective insight, the softer the approach, the more difficult it is for people to comply with the new normal protocols.

The very basic stimuli of human behavior are often generated by the reward and reinforcement principle. We change our behavior following reward or something that reinforced us, getting praise, money and credit, and not getting sick could make us stick to the rules. If we did not fall ill in the very first place, we would lack reinforcement to maintain our health and the health of our community in the long run.

This is supported by our overoptimism bias, like the "Oh, those horrible things won't happen to me and my family" mindset may develop as time passes and our perception of threat significantly declines.

Besides individual psychology, our behavior is really affected by cultural and social factors. In a time of radical uncertainty like this, we take the behavioral guidelines from others, like friends, peers, neighbors, influencers and leaders as they set the social norms on what is right to do or not. This behavioral example creates a bandwagon effect.

With so much confusion about “what is right to do” and "what is not", we follow other people’s examples. Seeing our friends and influencers on social media hold birthday parties, religious gatherings, and visiting shopping mall with their small kids, we may be tempted to follow suit.

The government’s new normal campaign is easier said than done. Many have realised there is nothing new about the “new normal” as they have been social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands frequently since the beginning of the pandemic.

As we may notice, the new normal is a difficult trade-off between health and economy. We need to get back to work, spur the economy while maintaining our own health. Hence do not let the "new normal" framework turn into normalization. We need to change our habits and the way we coexist.

The question is how to make people comply with a set of new rules.

Research conducted by Bott et al (2019) on taxpayers shows that making the normatively appropriate behavior known could make a significant impact on increasing the number of taxpayers that comply with the government advice.

Oftentimes, there is still confusion over whether we should go outside for exercise. While economic and cultural have started to reopen, we do not know whether it is actually safe to go out and or how to behave in public spaces. Hence, making sure that appropriate behavior is known by the public could be an alternative to increase people’s compliance with the protocols.

Second, ensuring the rules are clearly defined. The research by Shcweitzer and Hsee (20002) shows that individuals are more willing to exhibit dishonest behavior if there is ambiguous "room" to do that. Hence, setting clear rules on what is right and what is not is effective to change people’s behavior in public spaces.

Third, urging leaders and influencers to demonstrate compliant behavior. This has been a challenge for most of us. We have seen those role models not wearing masks or wearing them improperly, and standing close to others during a photo session.

Finally, we must assess our own behavior to determine whether it is rationally justified or just emotionally-driven. How far, how long, and how fast the spread of Covid-19 is crucially depends on our own behavior, hence the responsibility is ours to ensure this will pass. —The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

The writer is a former journalist, with a master’s in economic psychology from University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne & University Paris 5 Paris Descartes

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