Virus variants a concern in Indonesia as regional clusters grow

Recent studies have also indicated cases could be far higher than the nearly 1.9 million known infections. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - A jump in coronavirus cases on Indonesia's two most populous islands has health experts worried that the worst could be yet to come, with few curbs on movement at a time when dangerous variants drive record fatalities elsewhere in South-east Asia.

Case numbers have risen sharply in Java and Sumatra three weeks after holidays that followed the Islamic fasting month, when millions ventured across the archipelago, ignoring a temporary travel ban.

Indonesia reported 8,892 new daily coronavirus infections on Thursday (June 10), the highest since Feb 23, taking its overall number of cases to 1,885,942.

Data from its coronavirus taskforce also showed 211 virus-related deaths reported on Thursday, taking total fatalities to 52,373.

In Kudus, central Java, where healthcare reinforcements have been brought in, cases skyrocketed 7,594 per cent according to Dr Wiku Adisasmito of Indonesia's Covid-19 taskforce. Hospital capacity had hit 90 per cent there, local media reported.

Dr Defriman Djafri, an epidemiologist from Andalas University in Pandang, said fatalities in West Sumatra in May were the most on record.

In Riau, on Sumatra, daily cases more than doubled from early April to over 800 by mid-May, while the positivity rate was at 35.8 per cent last week, said Dr Wildan Asfan Hasibuan, an epidemiologist and provincial task force adviser.

Dr Wildan attributed the spike to increased mobility and possible spread of coronavirus variants, which have driven big spikes in many countries.

The impact of 'variants of concern' is hard to determine in Indonesia, which has limited genomic sequencing capacity.

It also has testing and tracing shortfalls and its immunisation drive has progressed slowly, with one in 18 people targeted for inoculations fully vaccinated so far.

Recent studies have also indicated cases could be far higher than the nearly 1.9 million known infections, among Asia's highest caseloads.

Dr Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist from Australia's Griffith University, said Indonesia should take Covid-19 variants more seriously, particularly the Delta variant, which he said was in its early stage of spreading.

"If we don't change our strategy, we will face an explosion of cases in the community and mortality will increase," he said.

"It means sooner or later it will reach the more vulnerable... we will face an explosion of cases that we cannot contain or respond to in our health facilities."

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