Doctors at main Jakarta hospital for Covid-19 turning away patients in droves as cases soar

Indonesian doctor Carissa Putri (left) gesturing to a medical staffer after receiving an incoming patient with light symptoms at a quarantine facility for patients in Tangerang on June 28, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - A resurgence of coronavirus cases will soon put doctors at Jakarta's main hospital for Covid-19 in the position of having to decide who gets a precious intensive care unit (ICU) bed and who doesn't.

In some respects, that is already happening at the Friendship Hospital, the Indonesian capital's biggest government-run medical facility.

During a seven-day period that ended on Thursday (Aug 27), the hospital received requests to take an average 83 patients a day - more than double the requested referrals during the same period in July. Owing to its limited number of trained staff, most are refused. On Thursday, the hospital fielded 103 referrals - it accepted 12.

This is as day after day this week, infections tested new highs, nearly six months after the first cases of Covid 19 first emerged.

On Friday, case numbers in Jakarta surged anew, climbing to 869, eclipsing by more than 100 the previous day's tally - itself a record. Nationally, infections soared by more than 3,000 - another record - to nearly 166,000.

The surge has halted the capital's gradual reopening. On Thursday, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan shelved plans to reopen bars and nightclubs.

Professor Wiku Adisasmito, a spokesman for Indonesia's Covid-19 task force, attributed the spikes in cases - at least in part - to inconsistent reporting across Indonesia's more than 300 laboratories.

"The government's objectives are very clear; fast and prompt response for protections for all Indonesian to help create a healthy and safe Indonesia from Covid-19," he said on Friday in a virtual briefing hosted by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club.

At the Friendship Hospital, or Rumah Sakit Persahabatan, doctors are grappling with the idea that they will have to triage patients - deciding whose condition is more serious yet treatable - for an ICU bed.

This is not far off, said Dr Erlina Burhan, a spokesman for the hospital who also doubles as a spokesman for the Indonesian Medical Doctor Association.

"I'm worried that soon we will get to a point where we have to play God," she said.

"I'm nervous."

The Friendship Hospital, built in the 1960's with Soviet help, has become one of the capital's last lines of defence for those severely or critically ill with Covid-19 since it closed all but 206 of its 700 or so beds in March to specialise in the fight against the disease.

Two other hospitals, Sulianti Saroso and a military hospital, provide similar levels of care and have 150 beds between them.

But with its full complement of 200 pulmonary specialists, anaesthesiologists and other specialists as well as more than 100 ICU nurses, Friendship Hospital tends to take the lion's share of referrals from the capital's 64 other hospitals charged with tending to those sickened with the virus.

But because beds are scarce, scores are turned away every day.

Since July, Friendship Hospital has never accepted more than 17 referrals per day, according to hospital data.

Indonesia has four doctors per 10,000 people - half the proportion in India and less than a third the ratio in neighbouring Malaysia, according to World Bank data.

"Our biggest limitation is human resources," said Dr Ernita Akmal, an ICU anaesthesiologist at the hospital.

On close circuit TV behind her, a nurse in head-to-toe protective gear tends to a critically ill patient on a ventilator in a next-door ICU unit where all 16 beds are full.

"After six months," Dr Ernita said, "everyone is exhausted."

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