Indonesia approves national football matches but experts call for stricter Covid-19 rules

The tournament is scheduled to kick off on Aug 27, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Indonesia has given the go-ahead for a national football tournament this month that will see matches taking place across the country with strict health protocols in place, but public health experts think the rules need further tightening.

The tournament is scheduled to kick off next Friday (Aug 27), after the Football Association of Indonesia received the green light from the national Covid-19 task force on Wednesday.

Under the conditions set by the national task force, all players must have been vaccinated and tested negative within 24 hours before each match, and no spectators will be allowed in the stadium, Jakarta-based news portal reported, citing a letter from the task force dated Aug 18.

The letter gives the nod for the country's premier and second-tier tournaments. Liga 1 consists of 18 top football teams across Indonesia, while Liga 2 involves 24 teams.

Epidemiologists contacted by The Straits Times on Friday (Aug 20) said holding the tournament at the end of August is acceptable.

While they hailed a rule banning spectators at the stadiums, they said stricter conditions are required.

All players should be quarantined for a minimum of seven days before the tournament, during which they should clear two Covid-19 tests, recommended Dr Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist from Australia's Griffith University.

"Throughout the tournament, all players must also be quarantined. After every match, they must go back straight to the quarantine centre. This is possible provided there is consistency and discipline," Dr Budiman told The Straits Times.

"The organiser must declare all the matches' venues timely so locations of the centralised quarantines can be soon decided," he added.

Concurring, Dr Adi Sasongko, who teaches public health at the University of Indonesia, said: "Learning from sports events in other countries, including the Tokyo Olympics, all players must have negative PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests and remain in hotels when not competing."

Last year, the tournament saw scores of matches between Feb 29 and mid-March before it was cancelled mid-season due to the pandemic.

Plans to resume the 2020 championship between October 2020 and February 2021 did not get approval from the authorities.

Gathering in public to watch football matches - known locally as "nobar" or nonton bareng - is a popular tradition in Indonesia, which gives rise to worries that the tournament will attract crowds.

"Nobar is a risk. Those with asymptomatic Covid-19 may spread it to others," Dr Sasongko said.

A porter carries a sack of clothes at Tanah Abang clothes market in Jakarta, on Aug 19, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Cafes and restaurants in certain cities and regencies in Indonesia that have low Covid-19 cases remain open.

The country, however, has been imposing stricter Covid-19 restrictions in many parts of the archipelago since July 3, but gradually eased the curbs in Jakarta and several other major cities, including Surabaya (East Java) on Aug 10.

Shopping malls which had reopened at 25 per cent capacity were allowed to raise capacity to 50 per cent on Tuesday as the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases and hospital admissions continued to fall.

South-east Asia's most populous nation is trying to flatten the epidemic curve, more than 90 per cent contributed by the more transmissible Delta variant.

Jakarta and East Kalimantan were the top two provinces with this highly transmissible variant, showed a study that sampled 5,084 cases across Indonesia from January to Aug 16.

The study, which was released on Friday, found that Jakarta had 302 cases of the Delta variant from a total of 1,128 genome-sequencing tests, while East Kalimantan had 147 of 250 tests. The country's main tourist island of Bali had 10 cases of the Delta variant, out of 458 samples collected.

Indonesia has so far reported about 3.95 million Covid-19 cases and about 124,000 deaths. On Friday, it recorded 20,004 new cases and 1,348 deaths.

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