Coronavirus: Indonesian hospitals overwhelmed amid scramble for tests

Medical staff wearing a protective suit walking towards an ambulance near an isolation room at Sulianti Saroso hospital in Jakarta on March 5, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - At the Gatot Subroto Army Hospital in central Jakarta, news that the government is introducing rapid testing for the new coronavirus, which causes the deadly Covid-19, could not have come soon enough.

The hospital is one of eight tasked with testing and triaging patients with the respiratory disease.

Located 2km from the presidential palace in the heart of the capital, it is the go-to for senior government ministers.

But, on Thursday (March 19), the small Z-shaped corner carved out of an out-of-the way wing perched on the edge of a stinking canal at the back of this sprawling complex was bursting at the seams. This is where testing for the coronavirus is taking place.

Forget social distancing. At midday, more than 60 people were occupying nearly all the waiting room seating in an area measuring less than 100 sq m.

All new entrants were directed to add their name and contact information to a list of stapled A4 paper indicating the next available slot was April 11 and even that was filling up fast. Already 53 others were on the list and presumably ready to pay the 750,000 rupiah (S$68) for a test.

Not everyone had to wait.

Mr Wardana Mulyoputra, 44, said he pulled strings with friends high up in the military to jump the queue and get tested.

The wine importer and his wife have two young children as well as a 56-year-old mother-in-law and her 79-year-old mother at home. "It's so difficult to get a test. I couldn't take the chance of waiting," Mr Wardana said.

Indonesia's government is struggling to contain an outbreak in the vast archipelago, which is the world's fourth most populous country.

President Joko Widodo has come in for criticism for the slow response to the health crisis. Government data puts the number of tests for the virus at only 1,700 in a country of 260 million people.

Indonesia's tally of confirmed cases stood at 369, while the death toll has risen to 32, according to government data.

Earlier this month, Mr Joko encouraged Indonesians to stay home and closed schools as well as popular landmarks like the National Monument in Jakarta. Still, businesses and neighbourhood mosques remain open.

The soft touch reflects a country with a meagre social safety net, where the vast majority of the working-age population earn their living from the informal sector as housekeepers and drivers for ride-hailing companies.

"Indonesia is different from other countries," said Mr Rinaldi Napitupulu, 56, an IT consultant who was helping a friend to arrange a test.

"Here, if you don't work, you don't eat."

Indonesia's healthcare system was already creaky before the onset of the pandemic. Care is limited outside the big cities. The universal health insurance scheme ran a deficit at the end of last year of 13 trillion rupiah (S$1.2 billion).

Still, rapid testing represents a big step forward. Tests to date have included chest x-rays and blood tests as well as nose and throat swabs.

The government has also said it is converting about 1,800-bed Asian Games athlete's village for use for Covid-19 patients.

"Jokowi has been trying to balance calls for tougher measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 against the need to protect jobs and incomes for many fragile Indonesians," said analyst Ben Bland, director of South-east Asia project at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.

"The government now seems to be stepping up its response, which is much needed because Indonesia's hospital system was already over-stretched and under-funded."

Even so, the country is far behind relative to its neighbours.

A week after arriving from Malaysia, Ms Annisa Mutia, 23, said she was glad she booked a test soon after she arrived when she developed a dry cough - one of the symptoms of Covid-19.

Ms Mutia could not help but compare Malaysia's response this week to close businesses and ban international travel with her own country's more relaxed approach .

"Indonesia isn't prepared for this," she said.

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