E Plurbum Tunggal Ika

December 2020

by Wayne Forrest

The past month’s events reminded me of how often the US and Indonesia can be more alike than they are different. Yes, both countries share a similar motto: E Plurbus Unum, “Out of One Many”, for the US; Bhinekka Tunggal Ika, “Unity in Diversity”, for Indonesia. They are also large, multi-ethnic, pluralist democracies, with many citizens prizing religious observance. Furthermore, agriculture is a strong component of GDP, both for domestic consumption but also for export. I could be nakal (“naughty”) and observe that last month’s US Presidential election mirrored Indonesia’s of 2019. Each had a losing candidate that insisted that fraud played a large role in their loss and both went to the courts with evidence that never amounted to anything. (Technically, some cases in the US are ongoing).

Tragically, this week each country experienced record highs in the progression of COVID-19. Yesterday the US lost 2,760 souls to the pandemic, more than any other day since it began. Hospitalizations are now above 100,000, double the number in the first wave last Spring. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told a US Chamber of Commerce Foundation meeting that the coming winter could be devastating even though a vaccine is on the way. Indonesia, which has experienced just one long wave, broke another record for new daily infections yesterday with 8,369 cases. It shattered all previous record highs by more than a thousand. Hospitals in many regions of both countries is almost at or exceeding capacity.

Some common threads in the continuing spread of the disease are complacency, economic expediency, shame, and religious faith, or perhaps more accurately, fatalism. Its God’s will whether someone contracts the disease, and its not up to government to interfere in our personal life. This attitude isn’t shared by all people in both countries, but we can observe how prevalent it is, whether it’s a motorcycle rally of several hundred thousand in South Dakota or the huge gathering at Jakarta’s airport for the recent return of the controversial religious leader, Rizieq Habib, from his self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. A majority of the US Supreme Court -adjudicating a case where New York ordered the temporary cessation of religious services in a part of Brooklyn because of a spike in COVID-19 cases– appears sympathetic to the argument that the right to religious observance is higher than public health. Indonesia’s authorities may have had more political reasons to allow a large crowd to gather for Habib’s return in Jakarta, whose governor, Anies Baswedan, drew support from the cleric’ followers in 2016 when he joined the condemnation of his opponent, Ahok Purnama, who had made a comment interpreted as blasphemy. Baswedan, who now has COVID, drew criticism for joining Habib’s supporters at the airport and several local police chiefs were fired for allowing a clear violation of existing restrictions on large meetings. Its not clear how authorities will handle future religious rallies. More broadly, Indonesian health officials report that many people that develop symptoms are hesitant to get tested because they fear ostracism from their community and the shame it causes. I would venture there is less of that in the US, but clearly a fair number ignore the advice of public health officials.

Personally, wearing a mask in public does not seem to be an imposition. Yes, its hard not to gather in bars and restaurants or be with family members for holidays, but its only for one year. To promote public safety America has seat belt laws in all but one state and Indonesia has a motorcycle helmet requirement. Indoor smoking prohibitions are common in buildings throughout each country. We live with many public mandates. Its accepted that falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is against the law because it endangers public safety but its not a violation of the First Amendment. I suppose social distancing a, wearing masks is a more difficult ask, especially for religious gatherings or for certain types of workers.

And what of vaccines? Will they be accepted by the people who gather and create “super-spreader” events or who leave their fate to a higher power? I fear the fissures that have emerged during the crisis will remain even when another remedy is in front of us.

(These views are the author’s and may not reflect those of AICC or its members.)