Is having sex safer than going to work?

As part of the Makassar Writers’ Festival, I’ve been asked to give a talk about HIV in Indonesia at the faculty of public health at Hasanuddin University. I’m reluctant. I’ve been wandering Indonesia without any thought of focusing on HIV for over eight months now. In that time I’ve met a surprising number of widows, orphans and middle-aged couples who have lost a child. Only one of those deaths has been HIV related. The rest are all in traffic accidents, mostly involving motorbikes.

That’s not entirely surprising. Bike ownership in Indonesia is booming, with 8.1 million new motorcycles crowding on to the country’s shockingly bad (and already crowded) roads last year. It’s perfectly common to see primary school kids driving motorbikes; it’s very rare to see a primary school kid in a helmet. And the industry is not exactly doing a lot to promote norms of safe driving. Here’s how Suzuki was pimping its new (quite girly, automatic transmission) model in Bau Bau, Southeast Sulawesi, last weekend.

Reporting of road accident related deaths is even worse than reporting of AIDS deaths in Indonesia. But working on best estimates, death contracted on the roads far outstrips death contracted in bed or while shooting up. Some 32,000 people died because of road accidents in Indonesia last year alone, a quarter of them teen-aged boys, and 60% of them on motorbikes. Ten times as many were injured badly enough to alter their daily lives. That compares with just over 5,000 Indonesians reported as having died of AIDS, ever. Let me repeat that. Over 30,000 road deaths a year, versus 5,000 or so AIDS deaths over the last 25 years. And yet Indonesia spent US$ 69.2 million preventing HIV infections and AIDS deaths last year, 60% of it taken out of the wallets of taxpayers in other countries, much of it spent very badly indeed. Indonesia does have a national road safety action plan, but, according to the Director of Road Safety in the Ministry of Transport, it has no dedicated budget to cut death on the roads. If I didn’t know better, I might console myself that HIV is not much of a problem in Indonesia precisely because of the prevention spending. Sadly, that’s not true. I also recognise, of course, that death tolls are not the only basis on which to make public health decisions. But it doesn’t take a very sophisticated observer to see that HIV programmes in Indonesia are grossly over-financed relative to other important killers and maimers, notably road death. (Then there’s smoking, but that’s a whole nother post…)

It doesn’t seem like this problem is likely to evaporate. Though the motorbike industry is wringing its hands over the effect that a perfectly sensible new restriction on credit will have, I’m not seeing it in the field. The Suzuki mob were offering new bikes for a downpayment of just 350,000 rupiah (about US$ 38.00). If that meets the 25% deposit requirement of the regulations, which came into effect this month, then it is a VERY good value bike, despite being girly. Even by the most pessimistic estimates, there will probably be another 6.5 million bikes and over 800,000 more cars on the roads by the end of this year compared with the start. Remove the several thousand that will be reduce to scrap by crashes, and its still a huge net addition.

For an idea of how far Indonesia has to go in making its roads safe, check out this presentation by Eric Howard. There’s lots he doesn’t mention — the political incentives to finance the building of sub-standard roads, the fact that Indonesians think road safety campaigns are just another way for policemen to extract bribes — but there are some priceless photos that show just why for most Indonesians, it’s probably far more dangerous to make your way to work or to school than it is to have sex.

4 Comments on "Is having sex safer than going to work?"

  1. Totally agree with this post. Good sense, as always. This is becoming an issue in Timor-Leste, too.

  2. Really interesting post and very true. I was in Jakarta last week after a couple of years away and being on the back of an ojek was even more, errr, exhilarating than before with so many more cars and bikes on the road.

    It is interesting though, some of this may have something to do with aid donor psyche. People driving irresponsibly and hooning around are probably viewed less favourably as target beneficiaries than the unknowing woman that contracted HIV/AIDS from a partner, or children who were born with it. There’s also perhaps some (misguided) notion that Indonesia wouldn’t spend money on HIV/AIDS prevention unless the donor community focused on it, because of its fairly conservative values, whereas road safety isn’t seen as an issue with those same moral/religious tangles so the international community is less likely to try to fill the government funding gap? That may not be correct, just an observation. Aid is about both money and ideas after all.

  3. One of the great “paradoxes” (for the desire to remain tactful) of Indonesia. On one hand, Indonesians pride themselves about their community spirit underwritten by “gotong royong”. On the other hand, many times–far too many for their own common good–this community spirit and civility is simply discarded as soon as they step out of their home and kampung.

  4. Based on the stigma that AIDS and HIV have in Indonesia, I imagine that deaths due to AIDS is grossly under reported and attributed to other illnesses. I don’t think AIDS prevention in Indonesia should be called “over financed” and compared with vehicle safety. How many Indonesians are living with HIV/AIDS? How many tests are given? Do pregnant women get HIV tested in Indonesia? People with HIV/AIDs have a chronic illness as long as they have access to medicine, which costs $$$.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*