Regional administrations are stepping up measures to prevent a potential community spread of COVID-19 as concerns heighten over the central government’s lack of transparency in handling the health crisis.
Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil, for instance, have requested to conduct polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests independently.
“Jakarta can do [the test] but we have limited authority. We have sent a letter to the Health Ministry, asking it to give our city laboratory the authority to help test [suspected COVID-19 patients],” Anies said in popular weekly talk show Mata Najwa on Wednesday.
These test results, which would come out faster if done in Jakarta, would allow the city administration to act quickly in tracing the movements of people declared COVID-19 and, therefore, better contain the spread of the virus.
Ridwan Kamil has made a similar request, saying that relying on a single institution for testing would be time-consuming.
“Please allow us to do the tests. If a result is positive, we will not announce it to the public but communicate it to the central government in accordance with protocols,” Ridwan said on the same occasion.
Speaking at a different occasion, Surakarta Mayor FX Hadi Rudyatmo shared a similar concern on Friday after a COVID-19 patient died during isolation in Moewardi Hospital in Surakarta, Central Jakarta.
The patient was the eighth suspected COVID-19 patient who had the results of her throat culture announced after she had succumbed to the disease.
Critics say similar incidents keep occurring because the government has a monopoly on COVID-19 testing.
Indonesia, which already has 69 confirmed cases as of Friday evening, only allows one lab run by the Health Ministry’s Health Research and Development Agency (Balitbangkes) to test swab samples of suspected COVID-19 patients.
On Friday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered Health Minister Terawan Agus Puteranto to allow other agencies such as the Airlangga University in Surabaya, East Java, and the Eijkman Institute in Jakarta to also conduct PCR testing.
The ministry has complied, announcing that Eijkman would be able to test suspected patients starting on Monday.
It is unclear, however, if regional administrations could conduct testing, too. Achmad Yurianto, the Health Ministry’s disease control and prevention director general, argued that regional hospitals did not have a Type 2 biosafety level (BSL) license, which means they are not equipped to conduct testing.
“BSL-2 is a research lab; we’re talking about a type of lab that is usually owned by higher educational institutions,” Yurianto said on Thursday.
Despite their limited authority, some regional administrations have taken their own measures to prevent a wider contagion.
Jakarta, for example, has restricted public gatherings.
“We decided to be proactive as it is our responsibility to prevent residents from contracting COVID-19," Anies said on Wednesday.
The administration, Anies said, had been inspired to take action by policies taken by Singapore, Vietnam and New Zealand.
It has set up a special team to review the permits of events that are slated to take place across the city and decide whether they could go on with additional requirements, be postponed or be canceled altogether.
“[By reviewing their permits], we aim to limit public interaction to prevent the transmission of [COVID-19],” he said.
The administration has already canceled the Jakarta E-Prix, the capital's first-ever Formula E race initially set to take place on June 6, and Car Free Day (CFD) on Sunday and March 22.
According to corona.jakarta.go.id, the administration is monitoring 486 people in both homes and hospitals and closely observing 238 people at hospitals for showing COVID-19 symptoms and having traveled to countries with high infection rates.
Most are in South Jakarta, where 190 people are being observed, followed by 112 in East Jakarta, 102 in West Jakarta, 97 in Central Jakarta and 74 in North Jakarta. The remaining 112 are outside of the capital.
The central government has refused to reveal the locations of suspected COVID-19 patients, triggering a barrage of criticism from the public, arguing that the policy would deprive them of crucial information to avoid contagion.
Unofficial data from the city administration on Tuesday showed that 14 people who tested positive of COVID-19 are Jakarta residents. On the same day, the central government announced a total of 19 cases but refused to disclose where they live.
Syahrizal Syarief, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, demanded that the central government improve its coordination with regional administration to have greater control of the virus.
He also slammed the government for concealing the location of COVID-19 patients, which he believed was not a privacy violation.
“I regret the fact that the central government refuses to disclose information on the geographic location of confirmed cases — for whatever reason. Without such information, how can the regional administrations prepare themselves? How can the public assess the risks they are taking in their daily lives?”
He added that regional administrations should be given a greater role in preventing the spread of COVID-19, but the central government must first provide a standard operating procedure and set official protocols.
“Tracing the movements of diagnosed patients, monitoring them — this needs to be done by the regional administrations,” he said. “However, they must be careful not to make any decisions that could lead to controversy.” (dfr)