Indonesia overtakes Philippines as South-east Asia's Covid-19 hot spot

With 4,411 new cases in the past 24 hours, Indonesia's tally hit 349,160 on Oct 15, 2020.
With 4,411 new cases in the past 24 hours, Indonesia's tally hit 349,160 on Oct 15, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Indonesia has taken over the Philippines as South-east Asia’s new pandemic hotspot on Thursday (Oct 15), as it struggles to contain surging Covid-19 infections and fresh cases hitting 4,000 cases a day.

With 4,411 new cases in the past 24 hours, the world’s fourth most populous nation’s tally hit 349,160 on Thursday - 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, the position it retained until Aug 6 when the Philippines took over. 

It 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 the rapidly surging coronavirus cases.

The lifting of restrictions started on Monday (Oct 12).

The government has blamed the spike in cases on people's failure to comply with health protocols, such as wearing masks and keeping a safe distance, 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.

The government 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 Philippines’ 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 going out. 

However, experts from a research team at the state-run University of the Philippines voiced concern that cases in Metro Manila, the capital region, and in seven provinces had recently been spiking.

“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 Octa-UP research team said in a report. 

In Indonesia, the authorities have stepped up efforts to secure vaccines to tackle the pandemic. The United Kingdom-based pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has committed to providing Indonesia with 100 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in London on Wednesday.

Under the latest plan, Indonesia seeks to vaccinate 160 million of its nearly 270 million people 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 Ltd and 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 on Thursday. 

But, Dr Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist from 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 in the next five years, he added. 

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, he said.

“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,” Dr Pandu told ST.