Posing as ghosts, public shaming: How effective are Indonesia’s out of the box approaches against COVID-19?


JAKARTA: In Central Java, officials have dressed as ghosts and positioned themselves at a village entrance to deter people from leaving home.

Over in Jakarta, those who violated COVID-19 protocols have been asked to lie in a coffin to reflect on their mistakes.

Indonesia has one of the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia with more than 350,000 infections as of Friday (Oct 16).

To break the infection chain, local authorities have tried to think out of the box, in order to encourage people to adhere to health protocols.

Certain regions have imposed a fine for those who violate the rules, such as not wearing a mask in public.

As not everyone can afford to pay a fine, local authorities have attempted to get creative in terms of meting out punishments with a deterrent effect, including scaring people and public shaming. 

Experts interviewed by CNA said that certain methods may frighten people but are not necessarily effective in ensuring adherence to health protocols. 

Instead, they say public education and setting good examples of the health protocols may be more effective.

FILE PHOTO: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in Jakarta

Government workers wearing protective suits carry a mock-up of a coffin of a COVID-19 victim on the sidewalk of a main road to warn people about the dangers of the disease as the outbreak continues in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug 28, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan)


Local authorities at Indonesia’s most populated island of Java have identified urban legends and myths as potential tools for getting people to comply with health protocols.

One widely known ghost in Java is a shrouded ghost, locally named as pocong.

It is thought to be the trapped soul of a dead person. Dressed in white, it jumps around in the middle of the night and haunts people deemed to have behaved badly.

READ: ’Ghosts’ scare Indonesians indoors and away from coronavirus

In April, officials in Kepuh, Central Java province, for example, decided to dress up like the ghost. They stood guard at the entrance of their village to scare people so that they would stay put at home. 

“Since the pocong appeared, parents and children have not left their homes,” resident Karno Supadmo was reported as saying.

“And people will not gather or stay on the streets after evening prayers.”

Back in May, when many Indonesians returned to their hometowns to celebrate Idul Fitri, officials in Sragen wanted people to quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival in the regency.

Those who violated the regulation had to be quarantined in a ‘haunted’ quarantine house to ensure that they would not break health protocols again.


In Jakarta, public officers told those who violated health protocols to lie in an empty coffin and contemplate about their misbehaviour.

Cemetery in Indonesia's capital running out of space as coronavirus cases surge

Workers prepare new graves at the Muslim burial area provided by the government for victims of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Pondok Ranggon cemetery complex in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 16, 2020. Picture taken September 16, 2020. REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

This method met with backlash, as some pointed out that the coffin could potentially be a COVID-19 hotspot in itself. Officials later cancelled the programme.

However, the city government is confident that parading empty coffins or displaying them in public areas would remind people of death if they do not observe strict COVID-19 health protocols.

“Maybe the action taken by the leadership is a bit extreme but this is how we hope to raise awareness,” chief of Mampang Prapatan subdistrict in South Jakarta Djaharuddin reportedly said.

Over in East Java, the authorities of Gresik regency punish violators by forcing them to dig graves for COVID-19 victims, while in Sidoarjo regency health protocol offenders must clean local cemeteries.

Meanwhile, some residents of Bogor, West Java who violated the health protocols were made to sit in an ambulance next to a coffin containing a dead body.


Apart from scaring and reminding people of death, public shaming has also been used widely.

In Jakarta and Bogor, some health protocol offenders were forced to do push-ups and sweep the streets.

“We supervise (people) in public places or facilities, places of socio-cultural activities, as well as watch out for individuals who do not wear masks, while giving various sanctions according to the government regulations. These range from a written warning, to social work and fines,” said the head of Jakarta’s public order unit Arifin, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

READ: Bali prays as COVID-19 hits tourism on Island of the Gods

In Sumatra’s Bengkulu province, some violators had to pose for a picture wearing a necklace which showed they had contravened health protocols.

Offenders in Jayapura, Papua in the meantime, were ridiculed by wearing an orange vest with the words ‘stubborn’ person emblazoned on it.

In Pulang Pisau, Central Kalimantan, dancing with clowns is a punishment for those who think they can get away with not obeying to COVID-19 regulations.

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in Jakarta

Government workers wearing protective suits carry a mock-up of a coffin of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) victim on a main road to warn people about the dangers of the disease as the outbreak continues in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug 28, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan)

Some other measures such as punishing people to sing the national anthem in public, citing verses of the Quran and reciting the national philosophy Pancasila have also been implemented in places like Bogor and Sidoarjo.


Commenting on the efficacy of these measures, Veronica Anastasia Melany Kaihatu, a social psychology lecturer with Pembangunan Jaya University said trying to scare people and publicly shaming them will neither educate nor convince the public about the danger of COVID-19. 

People will only be temporarily afraid or shocked, but this will not necessarily lead to a change in behaviour.

“Unfortunately, after a period of shock and fear, and the person is able to think clearly, they would view that experience as them being set up or teased (by officials),” she said.

“Digging graves, sitting in an ambulance, provides knowledge that there are indeed many people who have died from COVID-19. So at least, it increases knowledge about the COVID-19 situation,” Ms Kaihatu noted.

A man wearing a protective face walks past near a mural promoting awareness of the coronavirus dise

FILE PHOTO: A man wearing a protective face walks past near a mural promoting awareness of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

But she doubts that moral obligations will arise from such punishments. Those methods may not be the most effective, she said.

Ms Kaihatu pointed out that regardless of the governments’ efforts to inform the public of the danger of COVID-19 and the health protocols one must adhere to, many do not really understand what the pandemic is.

“Difficulties arise when the information from the government is confusing. The malls are open but the schools are closed. Previously, any mask was allowed to be used. Now, scuba masks (single layer masks usually made of rubber fabric) are forbidden. 

“Things like these make people apathetic because the information changes very quickly and it forces them to change their behaviour again and again. In the end, trust decreases leading to a decrease in cooperative behaviour,” she explained.

READ: Indonesia’s capital Jakarta to ease coronavirus curbs from Monday


Ms Kaihatu said the government must continue to educate the public about COVID-19, perhaps through new means but in a simpler language which is easy for people to internalise.

She also pointed out that it is necessary to inform the public such as how many people have already been wearing masks daily so that those who have not, understand that there are others who have been making sacrifices.

“So far many have been reprimanded for not wearing masks, but not many have been rewarded for following the health protocols. So, this may be an alternative approach,” said Ms Kaihatu.

People wearing protective face masks are pictured near a mural promoting awareness of the coronavir

FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective face masks are pictured near a mural promoting awareness of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

Psychologist Rustika Thamrin concurred. She told CNA that educating people clearly about the aims of implementing and adhering to the health protocols is key.

Thus, authorities can call on influential figures such as religious leaders and civil servants to serve as role models who consistently adhere to health protocols.

She also suggested that information can be disseminated via social media and using popular apps such as TikTok.

“Using celebrities who are the idols of youngsters is also an effective way,” Mdm Thamrin told CNA.

READ: Indonesia’s coronavirus cases top 300,000 

The psychologist stressed that discipline can be developed by being consistent, by using examples from leaders and having accurate data.

“Thus, the people will trust and realise that discipline is absolutely necessary for the good of all people,” said Mdm Thamrin.

The people need to understand: “What it’s in it for me,” Mdm Thamrin said while adding that the media should showcase more success stories of countries or regions which have managed to limit the infection chain.

Meanwhile, Jakarta-based public health expert Nurul Nadia Luntungan said one of the most important elements in implementing social sanctions is in the area of enforcement.

“What the government should do is to build a system which is relatively easy to enforce, can be evaluated and there is a clear incentive,” she told CNA.  

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