A kampung in Kalideres, West Jakarta, closes its entrance to limit the spread of Covid-19 last month. (Antara Photo/Fauzan)

Shanghai's Empowered Neighborhoods Are Better Alternative to Lockdown

BY :XUE SONG

APRIL 12, 2020

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has been troubled by the dilemma of whether the government should lockdown Jakarta and other big cities in Indonesia or persist with its order of large-scale social restriction.

Meanwhile, the number of Covid-19 cases is increasing very fast in Indonesia. And there are worries that the Idul Fitri holiday in late May, when many people will go home from urban centers where they work, will finally push the death toll from the pandemic in Indonesia to tsunami-level proportion

As shops and offices are shut down in cities, laid-off workers and daily laborers have already been returning to their hometown, which also increases the risk of spreading the disease.

The central government has been loath to ban mudik, the Idul Fitri exodus, since without a job these workers will find it hard to survive in big cities like Jakarta.

The decision to impose a lockdown or not is not one to be taken lightly. 

I live in Shanghai, a metropolitan even bigger and busier than Jakarta. Since the end of the city's quasi-lockdown policy, which lasted for more than a month, activities in the city have been slowly returning to normal.

When Shanghai finally lifted its travel ban, residents were worried that international visitors and returning domestic workers would import cases and made the pandemic uncontrollable – just like Indonesian citizens outside Java worry that people bring Covid-19 from Jakarta – but the situation turned out to be way better than expected.

Part of the credit should be given to Shanghai's Neighborhood Committees (Ju Wei Hui), the equivalent of the stewards of urban hamlets (RW) or neighborhood units (RT) in Indonesia.

The committees have been doing a thorough job of checking residents' and visitors' temperature, disinfecting elevators, registering visitors' contact information and travel history, and overseeing their mandatory 14-day home quarantine, including by helping them buy groceries and dispose of their rubbish.

How Shanghai handles the situation shows the power of social-distancing with the support of a strong neighborhood system. Without the attentive support of the community, it is hard to imagine a family to live indoor for two weeks under quarantine, 24 hours a day.

Some would argue that the Neighborhood Committee is a grass-root governmental institution used by Communist China to enforce strict regulations on individuals, so the measures which Chinese cities are taking are not suitable for other countries.

I've seen concerns like that in Indonesia. For example, M. Taufiqurrahman said in an article in the Jakarta Post, "These days, some who were terrified by the coronavirus onslaught look up to China's response and have concluded that the cure for COVID-19 is simple: authoritarianism."

There is a caveat though: authoritarianism does not always equal draconian or monolithic measures. The seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic requires different measures to handle it in different places, always delicately balancing concerns of public health, economic activity and citizens' sentiment.

The dilemma of "to lock down or not" is universal to leaders in every country and municipality facing the pandemic, regardless of their regime type. That's why I think the measures of Shanghai might provide some inspirations to cities and districts in Indonesia, especially those which have been seeing imported cases of coronavirus.

The most important element in preventing Covid-19 from infecting many people at the early phase of its spread, which so far has proved effective, is the power of a strong neighborhood, with self-restrained residents and a few vigilant and dedicated individuals to make sure everyone obey quarantine protocols, keep track of residents' whereabouts and give support where help is needed.

The Neighborhood Committees plays the role of overseer and protector in Shanghai and many other cities in China. Organizations and leaders who can serve similar purposes exist in other countries and cultures as well, and all of them await to be fully empowered.

I have little doubt that Indonesians will make the most out of their decentralized political system and vibrant civil society. "Your Friendly Neighborhood Heroes" might very well be the RT/RW stewards, village chiefs, urban ward chiefs, neighborhood watch (Siskamling), ulemas, traditional leaders and many other community leaders.

In fact, a few villages in Indonesia have already mobilized volunteers to check on visitors and returning residents, such as in Purbalingga and Mojokerto in Java.

Their initiatives deserve praise and set a good example for other villages and communities to follow.

However, when I found out the measures they were taking and their lack of protective gear, I realized they need more guidance, knowledge and resources from experts and the government to carry on their vital task.

Since President Joko Widodo came to power, the government has taken many measures to empower grassroots communities, such as passing the 2014 Village Law and providing the so-called Village Fund.

If we take an optimistic perspective, the pandemic could provide an opportunity to deepen the empowerment of civil society, which suits Jokowi's policy priority.

By redirecting some resources to the grassroots and providing guidance on disease prevention and quarantine, it is expected that millions of strong neighborhoods can help Indonesia survive this pandemic, and may also contribute to a more vibrant civil society in the future.

Xue Song is an assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, China.

 

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