Life to return to normal in East Java city as Indonesia trials living with Covid-19

Blitar has seen low levels of coronavirus transmission as well as high vaccination rates.
Blitar has seen low levels of coronavirus transmission as well as high vaccination rates.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - Life will return to normal in Blitar, in East Java, by next week, the first city to do so in Indonesia as the authorities conduct a test on living with Covid-19.

The move comes after South-east Asia's most populous nation managed to bring under control the latest wave of the disease triggered after Hari Raya this year in May. The seven-day average for infections peaked in mid-July with 50,000 cases daily. The number has plunged to 1,700. Death rates have similarly dropped from the seven-day average peak of 1,700 in early August to around 100 in recent days.

"We are doing an experiment. A return to normal life in Blitar," Mr Luhut Pandjaitan, a senior minister and close aide to President Joko Widodo, who is in charge of coordinating efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Java and Bali, both of which account for 60 per cent of the population in the sprawling archipelago.

"Mask mandate would remain, but go ahead and join crowds," said Mr Luhut in a phone interview with The Straits Times over the weekend.

He stressed that compliance with strict protocols would remain necessary and people engaging in social activities must be fully vaccinated.

Under the rules for cities with low levels of Covid-19 transmission, restaurants and shopping malls may open only at 75 per cent capacity, while classroom learning can take place only at 50 per cent of capacity which means that students turn up in school only every other day. All of these restrictions will be lifted by next week in Blitar.

The city, which has a population of about 150,000, as well as many others, including Surabaya and Jember, have seen low levels of coronavirus transmission as well as high vaccination rates. The number of new reported cases in such cities had been below 20 for every 100,000 population per week and hospitalisation had remained below five for every 100,000.

Like in India, Britain and the United States, Indonesia reeled from the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus this year. The most deadly variant known so far, first detected in India, reached Indonesia around March and, from June, accounted for more than 90 per cent of total cases detected.

In June, President Widodo appointed Mr Luhut to coordinate efforts to fight the Delta variant in Java and Bali. The former army general lost no time in getting to work, slashing red tape, including in one instance personally ordering that shipments of Covid-19 drugs from Jakarta be directly sent to hospitals across the country, bypassing provincial and regency officials as required by law.

"Bureaucracy, inefficient regulations should not get in the way of efforts to save lives," Mr Luhut told ministers, provincial governors in one of his online coordination meetings.

Indonesia has largely relied on China's CoronaVac for its national vaccination programme that kicked off in mid-January 2021. Since then it has also turned to other vaccine types, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

The World Bank has noted that Indonesia was one of only seven countries to have administered the 100 millionth dose of a Covid-19 vaccine as at Aug 31.

"It is a major milestone for one of the most Covid-19 affected countries in the world, with about 270 million people and a challenging archipelagic geography," the World Bank said on Sept 17.

But some epidemiologists have advised caution despite the improving situation, warning that Indonesia could face a third Covid-19 wave - the first wave struck between January and February this year - as mobility rises as social restrictions are lifted.

The government has prepared for any eventuality, stepping up the building of centralised quarantine facilities recently across a number of provinces, making sure medical equipment is available and health workers are on standby in the event of a new wave.

"During this downtime, post the second wave, we are maximising efforts to do our utmost preparing for any worse scenario. The objective is to slow transmission (of Covid-19) and save lives by having ample centralised quarantine facilities," a senior officer tasked with ensuring such facilities are ready in the provinces told The Straits Times.

Mr Luhut said: "If we are consistent in doing what we are doing now, stay disciplined, then a third wave could be avoided. If cases rise, it would quickly come back down, because we quickly transfer positive cases to those centralised quarantines."

"It would also depend on what the new variants would be," he added.