Flashing a big thumbs-up in a video to his nearly 50 million Instagram followers, Indonesian actor and social media influencer Raffi Ahmad received a COVID-19 jab last week and encouraged others to do the same.
“Don’t be afraid of vaccines,” reads the caption on the post, which went live Wednesday and has been viewed over 3 million times.
As Indonesia rolls out its ambitious vaccination drive, its unconventional prioritization of social media influencers has been met with mixed reactions.
Raffi was one of the first people to get vaccinated in Indonesia. He got the shot on the same day as Indonesian President Joko Widodo, kicking off a sweeping nationwide drive that aims to vaccinate two-thirds of its 270 million population over 15 months. However, the public remains somewhat skeptical of the vaccines, which are being offered for free.
A survey published by the Ministry of Health in November revealed that while about 65 percent of the respondents expressed willingness to accept vaccination, only 37 percent were willing to pay for it. Common reasons for those who were skeptical about getting the jab included safety concerns, doubts about its effectiveness, and fear of side effects.
The inclusion of social media influencers and celebrities in the first stage of the country’s vaccination campaign is part of a government strategy that leverages the power of online celebrities in promoting vaccine acceptance among the public. Some influencers were prioritized for vaccination along with healthcare professionals (about 1.5 million), public servants, and religious leaders.
“The Indonesian government’s choice to prioritize influencers in its vaccination strategy is related to its decision to prioritize the working population,” Jennifer Yang Hui, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told VICE World News. “While it may seem contrary to what other countries are doing, which is to vaccinate the vulnerable older population and healthcare practitioners, there is a valid rationale behind this line of thinking.”
Yang pointed to the country’s large labor force — which makes up about half of its population — as the main reason. According to Yang, maintaining a healthy working population is important for both economic and political reasons.
“Historically, some incidents of social unrest in Indonesia have been linked to economic downturns,” she said, citing the May 1998 riots which emerged amid mass unemployment and food shortages as a result of the Asian Financial Crisis. With that historical lesson in mind, Yang thinks that “keeping the economy stable during the COVID-19 pandemic is crucial for Indonesia.”
Thus, for the tech-savvy youths in the workforce, “using influencers to reach the working population who may be more inclined to trust their messages is seen as a way to keep the economy afloat and prevent any unwanted side effects of an economic downturn in the long-run.”
Indeed, with about 160 million social media users, Indonesian social media is a hotbed for opinion formation. Online influencers have played a big part in swaying public perception on certain issues, like in mobilizing support for the 2019 pro-democracy movement spearheaded by student protesters across the country.
“It is challenging nowadays to reach young people in Indonesia without paying attention to social media because most millennials and [Gen Zs] no longer use the TV,” Edbert Gani Suryahudaya, a researcher at Indonesia’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE World News. He added that the government’s reach is “far below that of social media influencers.”
Raffi has about 12 million more Instagram followers than President Jokowi, making him arguably more famous than the paramount political figure in the country. “The role of influencers is vital because they can influence public opinion,” said Edbert.
While influencers have been viewed as an important resource in disseminating important health information during the pandemic, Edbert emphasized the importance of “collaboration” between government agencies and social media influencers to promote vaccination. “The primary role of the state in collaboration with social media influencers is as a credible data provider,” he said.
Speaking to Reuters, the health agency head for the city of Bandung, Ahyani Raksanagara said that the move to vaccinate influencers will “hopefully convey positive influence and messages” about the vaccines to the younger population.
“I agree with this tactic, because we need to publicize this program on a massive scale. [By] prioritizing influencers, it will be way easier for society to be able to accept and learn [this] information,” Jugo, a 26-year-old musician from the city of South Tangerang, told VICE World News.
Indonesia has secured over 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, including about 125 million from China’s Sinovac. Sinovac has been met with public apprehension in Indonesia, especially because it was shown to have only 50 percent efficacy in trials.
Indonesia, the fourth-most populous country in the world, has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has recorded over 900,000 cases of infection and close to 26,000 COVID-19 deaths. It also has one of the world’s highest doctors’ death rates during the pandemic, as over 250 doctors have died from COVID-19. This makes mass vaccination and the development of herd immunity all the more critical in Indonesia.
But the strategy of getting influencers vaccinated has been met with significant criticism from the Indonesian public.
“It's unfair to the health workers, because we need them as they’re on the front line in contact with the virus, and we need them more than influencers in terms of literally saving patients,” Adiva, a 20-year-old student in Jakarta, told VICE World News. “I still think it's important for them to show, educate, and encourage people to take the vaccine, but the problem is even the influencers sometimes influence in a bad way,” she said, alluding to a recent scandal involving Raffi’s vaccination.
Just hours after receiving his high-profile vaccine shot, Raffi was seen at a party with about 20 people, including other public figures. Police said they did not violate any health protocols but images from the event that made their rounds on social media inevitably drew immense backlash.
Raffi has since issued a public apology via an Instagram post.
“Last night's incident was purely due to my negligence,” he wrote. “I also hope my friends and all Indonesian people will continue to follow health protocols, even though vaccinations are ongoing.”
If there were already negative sentiments surrounding the prioritized vaccination of influencers, critics are now pointing to this incident as an example of how influencers may not be the most appropriate first-choice candidates for the much-needed vaccines.
Despite the controversy, most recognize the importance of concerted efforts in the nationwide vaccination drive. Dimas, a doctor from Purwokerto city, told VICE World News that while influencers can encourage greater acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines among the Indonesian public, “it must be followed by real work by the government” to reach enough people and achieve herd immunity.