As coronavirus testing expands, cases at Indonesia's athlete's village-turned-hospital expected to rise dramatically

Indonesian medical staff prepare a room for patients at the 2018 Asian Games athlete's village which has been converted into a hospital for Covid-19 coronavirus patients in Jakarta, on March 23, 2020.
Indonesian medical staff prepare a room for patients at the 2018 Asian Games athlete's village which has been converted into a hospital for Covid-19 coronavirus patients in Jakarta, on March 23, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - On Monday (March 23), Indonesia's Ministry of State Owned Enterprises opened the 1,800-bed Covid-19 Emergency Hospital - repurposed over four days from the athlete's village that had originally been built for the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.

"If we are united, Insha Allah (God willing), we can get through anything," Minister Erick Thohir said in a statement. "There's always a way."

The opening of the new facility follows an announcement by President Joko Widodo last week that rapid testing will be widely available, relieving severe bottlenecks at Jakarta hospitals that blew out waiting times for the exam by nearly a month.

And if that is not enough, by next week, the government hopes to complete a 400 billion rupiah (S$35 million) quarantine facility on an island south of Batam to house overseas arrivals who test positive for the coronavirus.

Mr Joko's government has come in for criticism for its halting and seemingly less than serious response to the pandemic until recently. The country failed to detect any cases of the coronavirus until early March.

As recently as two weeks prior to the discovery of the first cases, Mr Joko told local media the government would offer discounts to overseas holidaymakers.

That was then. The country now has 579 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 49 dead, according to the most recent government data.

Dr Erlang Samoedro, 45, secretary general of the Indonesia Society of Respirologists, who will be working in the the Covid-19 Emergency Hospital's pulmonary care unit, said he expected the number of infections to rise dramatically as testing expands.

"When you test, you find new cases," he told the Straits Times.

Until recently, testing was so limited that only the very ill were being diagnosed.

As the population of the infected expands to include those with only mild symptoms, the country's overall death rate will shrink, he said.

"Right now, we are only finding the very sick," Dr Samoedro said.

Dr Erlang Samoedro, head of the Covid 19 Emergency Hospital pulmonary and respiratory unit in Jakarta. ST PHOTO: JEFF HUTTON

Jakarta's provincial government, which administers the capital, announced a state of emergency late last week, calling for entertainment centres such as cinemas, spas and gyms to close for two weeks.

On Monday, the government required commuters to fan out when waiting for trains and buses in enclosed areas.

Back at the Covid-19 Emergency Hospital, just hours before the first patients were due to arrive, dozens of air-conditioning units were still in their boxes lined down corridors waiting to be deployed.


Oxygen tanks were readied at the bedsides of those needing acute care. Staff members hurriedly distributed equipment, carrying suction units - used to clear airways - one under each arm.

Upstairs were hundreds of dormitories of tiny three-bed units equipped with a small kitchen and windowless living area, where potentially thousands will wait out their 14-day quarantine, save for an occasional scheduled respite outside.

The new facility boasts nearly 500 doctors and nurses including 14 pulmonary specialists such as Dr Samoedro.

With 353 cases, Jakarta has by far the most cases of the virus. But the pandemic has now popped up as far away as Papua and Maluku. Neighbouring West Jakarta already has 60 cases.

And if other cities see caseloads like Jakarta?

"They will need to build a hospital like this," Dr Samoedro said.