The Jakarta Post
The governors of Jakarta and West Java, the two regions of the country hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak, have suggested that the numbers of people infected and killed by the disease in the country are significantly higher than the central government’s official count.
They have said the Health Ministry has not been swift enough in testing potential COVID-19 patients.
According to The Jakarta Post’s calculations using data provided by the ministry’s daily outbreak briefings, the central government has conducted a daily average of 240 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests since March 2. As of Friday, the ministry had confirmed 1,986 cases with 181 deaths and had conducted about 7,986 PCR tests in total.
“Pardon me, Mr. Vice President, the cases that we have today are exponentially higher [...] Our testing speed is not as we expected it to be so only a little data has come in,” West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil said during a virtual call with Vice President Ma’ruf Amin on Friday.
“The more we test, the more we know where the virus is circulating.”
Ridwan said the official government count showed only 225 cases in West Java as of Friday, but rapid testing conducted by his administration had uncovered 677 new cases.
After the rapid testing, which has a relatively high error rate, the governor said he would have to conduct secondary and more accurate swab tests.
The rapid tests, he said, were needed to bypass the slow testing process at the Health Ministry's National Institute of Health Research and Development (Balitbangkes), which he said could only test about 200 samples a day.
West Java has distributed 50,000 rapid test kits and has found that Sukabumi is a new outbreak epicenter in the province. The biggest cluster was found at the National Police’s Setukpa Officer Establishment School, where 300 of the 1,550 students tested were found positive for the virus.
The second biggest cluster was found at the Lembang Bethel Church of Indonesia (GBI) where 226 congregants tested positive for the coronavirus, two of whom, the pastor and his wife, have reportedly died of the disease. “Out of the 637 Bethel Church attendees, 226 tested positive, that’s a 35 percent rate,” Ridwan said.
Ridwan said the administration had conducted door-to-door testing in addition to tests in community health centers and hospitals. The administration opened a drive-through testing station in the Gelora Bandung Lautan Api Stadium in Bandung.
“South Korea, with a population of 51 million, has conducted 300,000 tests, 0.6 percent of its population. Indonesia [with a population of more than 264 million] needs at least 2 million tests,” Ridwan told the Vice President. “We’re still quite far from that number.”
Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan has also cast doubt on the central government’s data by highlighting the number of deaths, from any cause, recorded in the capital in March.
Nearly 4,400 burials occurred in March, 40 percent higher than any month since at least January 2018, according to a Reuters review of statistics from the city’s Department of Parks and Cemeteries. The second-highest total during the period was in March 2019, when nearly 3,100 people were buried.
“It is extremely disturbing,” Baswedan told Reuters on Friday, referring to the funeral statistics. “I’m struggling to find a reason other than unreported COVID-19 deaths.”
The governor told Ma’ruf during a video call on Thursday that more than 400 Jakartans had been buried according to COVID-19 protocol.
Between March 6 and Wednesday, 401 bodies were buried using the protocol. They were sprayed with disinfectant, covered in plastic and put inside coffins, according to Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan. Anies said the number of COVID-19-related funerals began to pick up on March 12, nearly a week after the first such funeral.
As of Friday, Jakarta had recorded 958 cases of COVID-19 and 96 deaths.
The governor asked the central government to help improve the city's testing capacity. "A lot of cases were not immediately detected and handled. The consequences are fatal. We have been late to detect the cases that may have transmitted the disease to other people," he said.
Responding to the governors, Ma’ruf said that he supported the governors’ call for more extensive testing.
It remains to be seen whether the government will be able to scale up testing.
The government has distributed some 400,000 rapid testing kits to the regions, focusing on the hardest-hit areas such as Greater Jakarta. However, even those who have tested positive for the disease still need to take the more reliable but limited PCR tests, given the high possibility of false positives among rapid test results.
Without mass, rapid PCR testing, it is believed that the country's confirmed cases will continue to be underreported. "The gold standard is still PCR testing [...] while the confidence level in rapid antibody testing is the lowest among all other forms of tests,” said Herawati Supolo Sudoyo, deputy director of fundamental research at the Eijkman Institute of Molecular Biology, on Thursday.