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Jakarta Post

Experts warn of turbulent 'new normal' amid COVID-19 data, testing issues

  • Rizki Fachriansyah
    Rizki Fachriansyah

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, June 3, 2020   /   10:11 am
Experts warn of turbulent 'new normal' amid COVID-19 data, testing issues Cashiers serve customers from behind plastic blinds on Friday, May 29, 2020 at AEON Mall in Tangerang, Banten. Shopping centers have implemented health measures to prevent COVID-19 infection as the Indonesian government calls for the public to adapt to the "new normal" phase of eased restrictions. (Antara/Fauzan)

Experts and volunteers with the LaporCovid-19 (Report Covid-19) community movement have warned of a potentially tumultuous "new normal" period following the easing of the large-scale restrictions (PSBB), pointing to the country's numerous issues in data gathering, testing capacity and risk perception. 

These factors are essential to ensuring a safe post-epidemic environment for resuming economic and social activities.

LaporCovid19 spokesperson Irma Hidayana said on Sunday that Indonesia’s COVID-19 data did not live up to the World Health Organization (WHO) standards. In particular, the government had not taken into account the number of deaths among suspected COVID-19 cases, which comprised the majority of coronavirus-related deaths in the country.

LaporCovid-19 had recorded at least 5,021 deaths among suspected cases by May 29, comprising 4,814 deaths among patients under surveillance (PDP) and 207 deaths among persons under monitoring (ODP). Along with the 1,503 deaths among confirmed cases, Indonesia's cumulative total was at least 6,232 deaths by May 29.

“Based on the data we gathered from 479 regencies across 34 provinces, the number of deaths among suspected [cases] have far surpassed the number of deaths among confirmed cases. Seventy-seven percent of all deaths [occurred] among suspected cases,” Irma said. 

Read also: 102 areas with zero COVID-19 cases allowed to start 'new normal'

Irma continued that the official government data contradicted the data of individual regions and merely illustrated the tip of the iceberg, and stressed that the lack of data transparency remained a major problem ahead of moving toward the government's "new normal" framework.

“Take North Sumatra, for example. On May 29, the provincial administration updated its data, which now includes the number of [suspected COVID-19] deaths. As a result, the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 in the region has shot up to more than 150,” she said.

The government must incorporate deaths among suspected cases to fill the holes in its COVID-19  data before ushering in sweeping changes to establish "the new normal", she said.

“The public deserves to know the true scale of the emergency," Irma said, and that the government's daily updates on COVID-19 cases was "simply insufficient to fully capture the gravity of the situation”. 

Executive director Elisa Sutanudjaja of the Rujak Center for Urban Studies concurred with Irma, saying that several regions had rushed to lift the PSBB despite questionable data on COVID-19 transmission and poor public compliance with physical distancing measures.

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“It remains to be seen whether [these] regional administrations, such as Makassar in South Sulawesi, Tegal in Central Java and Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, had conducted epidemiological studies [with] health experts and sociologists prior to ending the PSBB,” Elisa said during the same event.

The three regions she referred to had all lifted the PSBB just a few days ahead of Idul Fitri, which fell on May 24-25.

The Palangkaraya administration last week implemented more lenient restrictions at the subdistrict level to replace the PSBB, which it said had yielded lackluster results. At least 15 new COVID-19 cases have since been reported in the region following the measure.

Over the past few weeks, the central government has called for its citizens to adapt to what it refers to as "the new normal" as it looks to relax restrictions and reopen businesses under strict health protocols. 

Coordinating Economic Minister Airlangga Hartarto earlier claimed that several regions had shown a decline in COVID-19 transmissions and suggested that they might be ready to welcome the "new normal" phase. The regions he mentioned included Jakarta, the epicenter of the Indonesian outbreak.

[RA::With policy flip-flops, 'new normal' looks gloomy for Indonesiahttps://www.thejakartapost.com/academia/2020/05/19/with-policy-flip-flops-new-normal-looks-gloomy-for-indonesia.html]

University of Padjajaran epidemiologist Panji Hadisoemarto said, however, that it was simply “impossible” to determine whether the timing was right for Indonesia to enter the "new normal" phase, as the country lacked the testing capacity that was critical to making such a determination.

“Our testing capacity is currently at 10,000 [test] per day, which still falls short of the capacity of other countries that have entered a 'new normal' period,” said Panji.

As for the situation in Jakarta, he warned that new clusters of infection and wider community transmission could occur leading up to June 4, when the PSBB in the capital would end.

June 4 is also the expected starting date of the "new normal" phase.

“We have to be careful, as the end of the current PSBB period in Jakarta will occur about one week following the high movement of individuals recorded over Idul Fitri, [and] which is when new cases might be reported,” Panji said.

Read also: ‘New normal’ aims to keep economy running: Minister

Sociologist Sulfikar Amir at the Nanyang University of Singapore said that the successful rollout of the "new normal" phase would also hinge on the perceived risks of the pandemic among the public.

He said risk perception – an individual’s subjective impression of perceived threats to themselves or their environment – was highly dependent on the government’s ability to provide credible information that fully illustrated the COVID-19 health crisis.

“As more people perceive the dangers of COVID-19, they will try and adopt what we call ‘safe behavior’ to avoid contracting the disease, which will in turn  contribute greatly to flattening the curve of transmission,” Sulfikar said.

He also noted that risk perception would vary depending on an individual's socioeconomic condition.

As of Tuesday, the government's official count recorded 27,549 confirmed cases and 1,663 deaths.