Coronavirus: Asia worries

Indonesia is S-E Asia's new pandemic hot spot

Fresh Covid-19 cases hit 4,000 a day as it overtakes Philippines

A woman having her blood sample taken for coronavirus testing in Medan, North Sumatra, this week. The Indonesian government has blamed the surge in Covid-19 infections on people's failure to comply with health protocols such as wearing masks and soci
A woman having her blood sample taken for coronavirus testing in Medan, North Sumatra, this week. The Indonesian government has blamed the surge in Covid-19 infections on people's failure to comply with health protocols such as wearing masks and social distancing, but critics say the authorities have prioritised resuscitating the economy over tackling the pandemic properly.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Indonesia has taken over from the Philippines as South-east Asia's new pandemic hot spot as of yesterday as it struggles to contain surging Covid-19 infections, with fresh cases hitting 4,000 a day.

With 4,411 new cases in the past 24 hours, the tally in the world's fourth-most populous nation hit 349,160 yesterday - the highest in South-east Asia. There have been 12,268 deaths, also the highest in the region.

The Philippines reported 2,261 new cases, raising its total to 348,698.

Indonesia surpassed Singapore as the country with the most number of coronavirus infections in the region on June 17, a position it retained until Aug 6, when the Philippines took over.

The country has seen a faster growth in infections in the past few months, as large-scale social restrictions were eased in many parts of the vast archipelago from June to give some reprieve to an economy battered by the pandemic.

South-east Asia's biggest economy is on the brink of a recession.

The capital Jakarta went into a second partial lockdown on Sept 14 in a last-ditch attempt to contain rapidly surging coronavirus cases.

The lifting of the restrictions started on Monday.

The government has blamed the surge on people's failure to comply with health protocols such as wearing masks and social distancing, but critics say the authorities have prioritised resuscitating the economy over tackling the pandemic properly.

In the Philippines, with fewer Covid-19 cases surfacing, the government has been easing quarantine restrictions to speed up the reopening of an economy that is already in deep recession, despite warnings from experts that this could lead to a surge in infections.

It is allowing commuters to sit closer together when taking public transport, and more businesses can now operate at full capacity. Teens and those aged 61 to 65 are also now allowed to go out of their homes.

The country's Covid-19 task force head Carlito Galvez noted that the number of cases in the Philippines has been falling because of "a change of behaviour" among Filipinos, referring to their consistent habit of wearing masks and face shields as well as keeping a safe distance while outside.

However, experts from the Octa-UP research team at the state-run University of the Philippines voiced concern that cases in Metro Manila - the capital region - and in seven provinces have recently been spiking. They warned that a surge seems inevitable.

"As the national government decides to further expand economic activity all over the country, the reality of a surge in viral transmissions will not be a question of if, but of when and by how much," the research team said in a report.

In Indonesia, the authorities have stepped up efforts to secure vaccines to tackle the pandemic.

British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has committed to providing Indonesia with 100 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in London on Wednesday.

Under the government's latest plan, Indonesia seeks to vaccinate 160 million of its nearly 270 million population against the coronavirus by the end of next year.

The priority of vaccination will be given to people aged 19 to 59 and front-line workers such as healthcare staff, police and military officers, Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto said on Oct 2.

State-owned vaccine producer Bio Farma is conducting the final-stage clinical trials of a vaccine developed by Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech, and the company aims to commence vaccine production in January.

Meanwhile, Jakarta-based drug producer Kalbe Farma, which is working with South Korea's Genexine on another vaccine candidate, is set to carry out its second-phase trial for efficacy and dose range in Indonesia next month, its president director Vidjongtius told The Straits Times yesterday.

But Dr Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist from the University of Indonesia, questioned the government's rush to secure vaccines as the key solution to handle the pandemic. Vaccines must serve as "a long-term solution" and become part of a strategic plan in handling the pandemic and its impact over the next five years, he said.

In the meantime, the government must remain focused on lowering the number of cases by intensifying surveillance, including contact tracing, and changing people's behaviour, as implemented by its neighbours such as Thailand and Vietnam, Dr Pandu added.

"The pandemic mostly affects regions in Java and big cities like Jakarta. If we can apply (the methods) well, we can push down the figure of infections."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2020, with the headline 'Indonesia is S-E Asia's new pandemic hot spot'. Print Edition | Subscribe