Late reporting of new Covid-19 cases by remote regions a major challenge for Indonesia

One major challenge that the national government is facing is the late reporting of new cases by local governments. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JAKARTA - The Indonesian health authorities have identified a new Covid-19 cluster in Bangkalan regency in East Java province's Madura Island, a week after reporting a similar flare-up in Kudus regency in Central Java, as the country scrambles to contain a surge in cases following the Hari Raya Aidilfitri holidays.

The Kudus and Bangkalan flare-ups may just be the tip of the iceberg, said a senior national government official.

One major challenge that the national government is facing is the late reporting of new cases by local governments, which delayed the contact-tracing process needed to curb the spread of the virus.

"There are regions whose lab test results were not promptly submitted to the national Covid-19 records," Dr Siti Nadia Tarmizi, a Health Ministry spokesman, told The Straits Times.

The national online tabulation system managed by the Health Ministry keeps track of the daily infection rates across Indonesia.

The world's fourth-most populous nation - with 270 million people - has 34 provinces that are made up of more than 500 regencies and towns.

Indonesia has 1.86 million infections and 51,803 deaths so far.

While suspicions exist, it remains unclear whether the regions deliberately delayed disclosing their Covid-19 data to hide the problem.

National Covid-19 task force spokesman Wiku Adisasmito said last Friday that the actuality and accuracy of Indonesia's Covid-19 data is heavily dependent on the reporting system and transparency of each of the regions.

He urged every region to improve its reporting system.

Bangkalan had a record 190 new confirmed Covid-19 patients in the nine days to last Friday, 34 of whom died, local media reported.

Many of the recent patients died within 48 hours after being admitted to hospital.

As at Sunday, Bangkalan, with a population of one million, has recorded 1,779 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 180 fatalities.

The head of Bangkalan's Covid-19 taskforce, Mr Agus Sugianto Zain, told reporters that family clusters were among the main reasons for the surge in cases. Bangkalan is also a hometown of many Indonesian migrant workers.

Huge traffic build-ups were seen on the weekend on the causeway between Madura and the main island of Java, as the local authorities stopped every vehicle coming from the smaller island and required them to take a swab test before continuing their trip.

Kudus, another small, sleepy regency, registered a sevenfold increase in cases between Hari Raya around mid-May and late last week, and recorded 8,757 confirmed cases.

The smallest regency in Java has 871,000 people.

Officials are currently investigating if a more transmissible variant of the coronavirus is also responsible for the surge in cases.

Kudus officials have attributed the surge to increased social visits and religious gatherings during Hari Raya as well as lax enforcement of strict health protocols among visitors at recreational centres.

The regency has also seen an influx of patients from neighbouring areas who turned up to be tested for Covid-19, after the Djarum Foundation donated sophisticated testing equipment to three main hospitals, swarming medical staff.

This has further complicated the problem in Kudus.

The bed occupancy rates in Kudus and Bangkalan hospitals have reached above 90 per cent.

The clusters in the two regencies, however, have not significantly alarmed Jakarta residents, even as some of the Hari Raya travellers have returned to the capital and other bigger cities for work.

This is because hospitals' bed occupancy rates in major urban centres have so far remained low, while their medical staff are better trained than elsewhere in Indonesia.

Nationwide, the authorities have set aside 72,000 hospital beds to treat Covid-19 patients, of which 25,000 were occupied last week, up from around 20,000 the previous week.

Adding to the late reporting problem is the weak contact-tracing efforts in the regions, according to Dr Nadia.

"Regions are not doing maximum efforts in contact tracing, hence they cannot cut the chain of transmission fast," she said in a mobile phone text message to ST.

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