News analysis

Make-or-break time for Indonesia in battle against Covid-19 as daily deaths hit record high

Indonesian police checking motorists to enforce Covid-19 emergency restrictions in the capital Jakarta on July 9, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

It's make-or-break time for Indonesia in its battle with the latest wave of Covid-19 infections with the number of deaths daily exceeding 1,000 for the first time ever on Wednesday (July 7).

The country, the worst-hit by the pandemic in South-east Asia, reported 38,124 cases and 871 fatalities on Friday, bringing the number of total cases to more than 2.45 million and deaths to over 64,000.

But the situation is set to become a lot worse, with the government projecting daily infections to go beyond 40,000 and perhaps as high as 70,000 in the worst-case scenario.

Hospitals, as well as healthcare workers, are already struggling to cope, erecting tents outdoors to attend to scores of Covid-19 patients.

Social media is filled with frantic pleas for oxygen tanks and sombre condolence messages, including of prominent figures such as leading scientist Novilia Sjafri Bachtiar, who led clinical trials of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine in Indonesia.

Critics have blamed President Joko Widodo and his government for their reluctance to impose a strict, large-scale lockdown, opting instead for small-scale zonal restrictions to safeguard the economy.

Despite mounting cases since the Hari Raya holidays in May - driven mostly by widespread travel throughout the sprawling archipelago and the highly contagious Delta variant - the government implemented emergency measures only on July 3, and these were limited to Java and Bali islands until July 20.

Under the guidelines implemented on July 3, up to 50 per cent of workers in "essential" sectors such as banks, hotels and the stock market were allowed to work on staggered shifts.

But those in "critical sectors", a newly created category, such as energy, logistics, food and beverage, were exempted.

Given the late response, epidemiologists told The Straits Times that more draconian measures were needed to break the chain of transmission of the virus.

"We really have to have 100 per cent of employees working from home, exempting perhaps the most essential such as those in security and food delivery," said Dr Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Australia's Griffith University.

"We shouldn't play down the situation as the threat is very serious," he added.

This past week, the government has also imposed stricter measures in 20 other provinces, although not as stringent as in Java and Bali.

It has also promised to scale up testing and boost vaccination, targeting a million doses a day in July and two million in August. It is currently administering around a million doses a day.

Experts doubt the target is realistic given serious challenges, including supply chain delays, the need for refrigeration facilities, bureaucracy, corruption and geography.

Disused buildings have been turned into isolation facilities, and supplies of oxygen ramped up following reports that at least 30 patients died after a public hospital ran out of liquid oxygen.


A man queueing to refill oxygen tanks in Jakarta on July 5, 2021. Supplies of oxygen have ramped up in Indonesia following reports that at least 30 patients died after a public hospital ran out of liquid oxygen. PHOTO: REUTERS

Dr Pandu Riono, a prominent epidemiologist from the University of Indonesia, said the government's tardiness had cost lives.

"The government's patchwork approach in dealing with the pandemic has claimed only more victims. For instance, the disruption of oxygen supply should have been anticipated," he said.

Dr Pandu blamed poor leadership for Indonesia's woes, saying that Mr Joko, or Jokowi as he is better known, should have led the Covid-19 response instead of assigning the job to his ministers.

The President should draw up a national plan detailing in an "open and transparent manner" the steps the country must take to overcome the pandemic, he added.

"We don't have a national plan, which is the biggest strategy in any modern country. Everything (in the plan) should be realistic, measurable and can be monitored day by day," said Dr Pandu.

But Dr Ni Nyoman Sri Budayanti of Bali's Udayana University believes the government's failure to communicate rather than the lack of game plan was responsible for the worsening situation.

She said: "The government's health policy with regard to Covid-19 response is in line with the standard set of indicators by the World Health Organisation, but the problem is the people don't know".

Measures to mitigate the pandemic were "better late than never", she said.

The coming weeks will be crucial to halt the spread of the virus and Indonesians must do their part in ensuring the latest measures do not fail, she said.

"It is not the time to blame one another. We cannot expect the government to do everything," she added.