Dzulfiqar Fathur Rahman, Jakarta – The government is distributing food aid to 20 million poor households across the country to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. But large-scale social restrictions may jeopardize the humanitarian effort.
Poor households in regions with insecure food supply chains might not be able to use the Rp 200,000 (US$12.3) in monthly aid to buy eggs, chicken or rice, as logistics might be disrupted because of road closures in some regions, according to the Institute of Development for Economics and Finance (Indef).
"The distribution chain could be disrupted," Indef researcher Dhenny Yuartha Junifta told reporters in an online discussion on Wednesday. "It will be a problem if there is panic in the eastern part of Indonesia. What will happen to supplies and where will they come from?"
Some regions of Papua and West Papua have scored between 41.52 and 59.58 on the 2018 food security index, which measures the availability and accessibility of food.
The index, compiled by Statistics Indonesia (BPS) and the Agriculture Ministry's Food Security Agency, considers regions with scores below 59.58 to be food-insecure, because the availability of healthy food there is limited.
Some households eligible for the staple food assistance, whose monthly spending on food ranges from Rp 200,000 to Rp 400,000, live in regions categorized as insecure.
The fast-spreading coronavirus has reached at least 32 provinces, including food-insecure regions. As of Wednesday, 2,956 people across the country have contracted the virus, and 240 of them have died of the disease, while 222 people have recovered.Jakarta, the national epicenter of the outbreak, has introduced large-scale restrictions to minimize the risk of contagion such as by suspending the activities of school and offices and banning religious events and other public activities.
Some regions, including Tegal in Central Java, Bandung in West Java and Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, are closing roads to limit the movement of people.
"This should be the government's concern: the allocation and distribution of food assistance to meet public needs amid the pandemic and, especially, during Ramadan and Idul Fitri," said Dhenny, who leads Indef's research on food issues.
At the beginning of April, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo had asked the home minister to clear the way for staple food deliveries especially in the days leading up to the Islamic holy month, set to start on April 23.
The President has also asked the agriculture minister to ensure supplies of staple food for Ramadan.
According to Agriculture Ministry estimates, the country's staple food production between March and May will exceed consumption. Rice supply, for example, was estimated to exceed demand by 8.3 million tons at the end of May. With average monthly consumption at 2.5 million tons, the surplus alone was expected to last through August.
"But if the outbreak last beyond August, there might be a problem," said Dhenny.
Procuring rice from overseas might prove difficult, partly because Vietnam, a major rice exporter in Southeast Asia, was limiting rice export volumes to secure domestic supplies amid the pandemic.
The government, therefore, should exempt farmers from the large-scale social restrictions to let them continue the production of staple food this harvest season, said Indef senior researcher Bustanul Arifin.
"I think they should be allowed to harvest, as long as they comply with the protocol, such as wearing masks and keeping a distance from their partners," Bustanul said during the same online talk on Wednesday.