Coronavirus Asia

Covid-19 testing insufficient, says Indonesia health minister

People waiting to receive Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine injections during a mass vaccination drive for vendors and shopkeepers at the Tanah Abang textile market in Jakarta on Wednesday. Indonesia registered a record high positivity rate, or the percentage
People waiting to receive Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine injections during a mass vaccination drive for vendors and shopkeepers at the Tanah Abang textile market in Jakarta on Wednesday. Indonesia registered a record high positivity rate, or the percentage of tests that come back positive, of 38.3 per cent on Tuesday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Indonesia's Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said Covid-19 testing is insufficient as epidemiologists expressed fears that the pandemic is getting out of control in the sprawling archipelago.

Citing a rise in the positivity rate, which is the percentage of tests that come back positive, Mr Budi said on Wednesday that the health authorities want to widen testing soon by intensifying antigen tests.

"By doing this, we will detect a greater number of positive cases more quickly. We will also know faster if someone is infected," he said in a live-streamed press conference.

Coping with the worst Covid-19 crisis in South-east Asia, Indonesia registered a record high positivity rate of 38.3 per cent on Tuesday, after it hit 36.1 per cent on Sunday and 32 per cent on Monday.

Mr Budi attributed the surging rate to fewer people being tested over the long holiday for the Chinese New Year. Similar spikes occurred during past holidays.

Indonesia's overall positivity rate stands at around 18 per cent, much higher than the 5 per cent or lower lasting for two weeks recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a threshold for reopening.

The world's fourth most populous nation reported 9,039 new cases yesterday, bringing the total to 1.25 million. It also recorded 181 new deaths, resulting in overall fatalities of 33,969.

The increase in daily fresh cases has fallen below 10,000 since Feb 8, with the exception of Tuesday, when 10,029 cases were logged.

Epidemiologists have expressed fears the pandemic may be growing out of control.

"The high positivity rate indicates that the pandemic is not under control," Mr Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Australia's Griffith University, told The Straits Times.

  •  

    6.7m

    Number of people Indonesia has tested since Covid-19 swept the country nearly a year ago.

    2.5%

    Proportion of its 270 million population who have been tested.

"A pandemic that is out of control means there are a lot of infections in the community that cannot be detected early."

He suggested that Indonesia's new daily cases cannot serve as "a valid reference" due to minimal testing.

Nearly one year after Covid-19 swept the country, Indonesia has tested only 6.7 million people, or around 2.5 per cent, of its nearly 270 million population.

The WHO recommends that each country conducts 1,000 tests per million people. This means Indonesia should be testing at least around 270,000 people per week, or some 38,000 a day.

The country fell short of that figure yesterday. Data from the Covid-19 Mitigation Task Force showed 22,556 people were tested yesterday.

Dr Windhu Purnomo, an epidemiologist from Surabaya-based Airlangga University, echoed Mr Dicky, saying that he feared a large number of cases may have gone undetected.

"If we cannot intensively detect the cases, it's like facing a time bomb because the infections spread below the surface and we are not able to detect them," he said. "We can't reduce testing and (contact) tracing because of vaccination. That's a big mistake," said Dr Windhu.

On Wednesday, Indonesia kicked off the second phase of its vaccination programme, targeting at least 38.5 million public workers and the elderly. In the first phase, which is continuing, 1.16 million health workers out of nearly 1.5 million have been vaccinated.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2021, with the headline 'Covid-19 testing insufficient, says Indonesia health minister'. Subscribe