The woodcarvings of the Asmat people of Papua are world famous. But it has been the shocking reports of the death of over 65 infants mainly from malnutrition and measles that have turned the spotlight on the regency’s health conditions. Hundreds more including several adults are being treated at a hospital in the capital Agats as medics and aid pour in.
The Health Ministry has just revived its “Flying Health Care” program to help address the measles outbreak and the complications exacerbated by malnutrition, including pneumonia — although too late for dozens of grieving families.
The rapid response will hopefully save lives. However the warnings and reports of low immunization coverage and malnutrition reached the Health Ministry in September, officials said. What happened between September and January? Apart from low immunization coverage — not only against measles — many breastfeeding women were known to be malnourished.
As in the 2009 reports of famine in neighboring Yakuhimo, the remoteness of villages has been cited as one reason for difficult access to health services. Over 100 died in the highlands back then, blamed on a failed harvest, not famine, the government said. In Agats district, villagers can only reach the nearest health facility by an hours-long boat journey along the river, when the only boat in their hamlets is not being used for other purposes.
In Jakarta the blame game quickly began, with the Health Ministry insisting that under regional autonomy the primary responsibility lay with the local governments — and Papua’s provinces and regencies have received huge sums of special autonomy funds, derived from their rich natural resources, for education and health services.
How often local authorities attempted to implement mobile health services is unclear, as many communities will forever be “remote” from their capitals in Papua, located in part of the world’s second-largest island. One third of Asmat’s population is categorized as living below the poverty line.
So given the four months or so since the warnings of a health crisis were first raised, maybe the real question is: Who really cares? Would a much smaller outbreak not cause much greater uproar among netizens if it occurred, say, in Java or Sumatra? Indonesians are whipped up instantly not by the conditions of our chronically poorest province, but anytime a separatist flag is raised. Few question the arrest, torture and shooting of Papuan protesters, without questioning why anyone in a poor province would demand independence. As critics among Papuans reiterate, most Indonesians care about the rich land much more than their Melanesian brothers and sisters living too far from the capital and other more developed areas.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has visited Papua more frequently than any of his predecessors. This shows how Jakarta does care about the easternmost province by, among other policies, ensuring major progress in its infrastructure development. But the central and local governments should learn from some innovative regions that have successfully created outreach programs to remote populations, which do not require grand-scale projects. They just need to care about their citizens.