There is widespread agreement that compared to most other states in Southeast Asia, Indonesia's central government has offered a poor response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak. The government of President Joko Widodo initially ignored the threat, and when it did react, the crisis policies were piecemeal and confusing. But what explains this outcome? It would be easy to attribute Indonesia's response to its lower middle-income status or its democratic governance structures that lack strong repressive capacity. With countries poorer and more democratic than Indonesia performing better, however, this explanation is unsatisfactory. Going beyond simple development and regime categories, this article proposes that Indonesia's COVID-19 response was the result of its specific process of democratic decline in the last decade. This backsliding produced intensifying populist anti-scientism, religious conservatism, religio-political polarisation, corruption and clientelism, as well as assertiveness among anti-democratic actors. Ultimately, these segmental factors combined into a toxic mix that severely constrained Indonesia's ability to effectively respond to a massive external shock such as COVID-19.