A medical staff treats a Covid-19 coronavirus patient at a hospital's intensive care unit (ICU) ward in Bogor on 18 June 2021, as Indonesia’s Covid-19 coronavirus infection rate soars. (Photo: ADITYA AJI / AFP )

Indonesia’s Covid-19 Surge: Contradictions and Criticism

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Indonesia’s latest Covid-19 surge has piled pressure on the Widodo government, which is under pressure to reconsider some form of lockdown to rein in the spread of the coronavirus.

In the wake of Ramadhan, there has been a serious surge in coronavirus infections in Indonesia, resulting in high levels of hospitalisations and more deaths. In early June, Indonesia’s bed occupancy surged. The situation worsened later in the month of June, with reports of hospitals hitting 80 per cent occupancy levels. Some doctors were forced to turn away patients. In Jakarta, the health office advised hospitals to build emergency tents as their emergency rooms were full. There are now reports of medical workers dying, despite having been vaccinated. There is also news of looming oxygen shortages.

There is little doubt that the surge is a result of the huge level of mobility in Indonesia during the last days of Ramadhan. During this time, millions of Muslim Indonesians travelled to their parents’ or relatives’ homes to celebrate Idul Fitri — a practice often called mudik. It is a holiday time where mass travel takes place. People travel by car and even by motorbike, with many traversing long distances. Buses and trains are usually packed. Large family and neighbourhood gatherings take place. For a virus that has taken on a reputation of finding new avenues to infect populations worldwide, mass travel during mudik is the ideal setting for transmission. This is particularly true for the Delta variant, which is now on the rise in Indonesia.

Despite the post-Ramadhan surge, there is also no clear national policy of even partial lockdowns or, as it is called in Indonesia, Large Scale Social Restrictions (PSBB).

Unsurprisingly, the administration of President Jokowi Widodo was criticised roundly for its handling of the pandemic. Criticisms include the lack of serious enforcement of policies aimed at discouraging mudik. While it is reported that police did turn back thousands of people, millions continued their treks homeward bound. In response, the administration has gone on the defensive. Luhut Panjaitan, the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment took a defensive position by blaming the public. Mr Luhut, who is considered by some to have a ‘prime ministerial role’ in the government, stated that the public still went home ‘rame-rame’ (en masse) for the holidays ‘despite the government urging people to stay home’.

There are, however, contradictions in policies that could have fueled the latest surge — for example, policies that urged people to make the most of the holiday season by engaging in domestic tourism. The central government told regional authorities that tourist destinations could remain open as long as ‘prokes’ (health protocols) were in place. Regional governments in places like Bali made it clear that they were also open as a destination. There was an emphasis in government statements about the importance of prokes and the need for venue capacity at tourist destinations to be reduced. On balance, however, people were not being discouraged from holidaying.

Despite the post-Ramadhan surge, there is also no clear national policy of even partial lockdowns or, as it is called in Indonesia, Large Scale Social Restrictions (PSBB). On 24 June, there were 7505 cases in Jakarta, up from 4,895 on 19 June. This was high for the capital. But despite calls from many sources, including medical experts, Jakarta has not moved to institute a tight PSBB, preferring a more relaxed regime. This state of affairs is quite remarkable — indeed, almost all forms of activity are allowed under current arrangements. Public areas such as restaurants, street stalls, malls, department stores, sports activities and gyms remained open until 21 June and remained so even with the post-holiday surges of the Delta variant.  

There also appears to be a lack of clear leadership from the central government. On 20 June, Ahmad Riza Patria, the deputy governor of Jakarta, stated that Jakarta was still waiting for direction from the national government. Meanwhile, other regional governments are pressuring the national government to move towards stricter lockdowns and have complained that the current ‘micro scale’ restrictions are not working. These restrictions are partial lockdowns in specific villages or local districts in the domestic tourist destination of Jogjakarta, where cases have surged following the holidays. Sultan Hamengkubuwono, the governor of Jogjakarta, has joined the chorus of regional heads calling for a clearer national policy on large-scale PSBBs. However, it seems that the government has decided to stick to ‘micro scale’ restrictions. On 22 June, the Armed Forces chief announced that the army would help with this policy. He stated that the ‘micro scale’ restrictions are sufficient to hold back case numbers.

As the number of infections surge, Indonesia also appears to be caught out when it comes to vaccination rates. Indonesia currently has 104.7 million vaccine doses, comprising mostly Sinovac vaccines. It also holds 8.2 million AstraZeneca doses via the WHO Covax programme and 2 million Sinopharm doses. Granted, vaccination is proceeding at a faster pace as doses become available through the government’s local clinics. However, coverage is nowhere near enough to reduce hospitalisations in the short term. It is expected that case numbers will continue to increase, perhaps not peaking until July, which will put hospitals under great pressure. This pressure is worsened by a looming lack of finances for hospital operations. The Jakarta Indonesian Doctors’ Association has called on the government to urgently pay between 10 and 11 trillion rupiahs (US$690-760 million) in outstanding bills to hospitals. There may be a similar issue with unpaid fees to quarantine hotels.

The increasing pressure for a serious PSBB has also come from parliament, members of the main governing party and experts at the University of Indonesia. Some experts are even predicting a collapse in the health system. On 21 June, the government announced a curfew after 8 pm for malls and other retail outlets. It also sought to limit their capacity. The two measures will be in effect to 5 July. The restriction — called a Social Activity Restriction (PPKM) — is less than a PSBB but is clearly an accommodation to these pressures. But as the number of cases in Indonesia continues to spike, it is clear that the central government will need to play a game of catch up.

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