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Jakarta Post

Dozens of office infection clusters emerge as Indonesia seeks to revive economy

  • Ardila Syakriah
    Ardila Syakriah

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, July 28, 2020   /   09:38 am
Dozens of office infection clusters emerge as Indonesia seeks to revive economy A nurse takes a swab sample from a patient at the Tanah Abang district office in Central Jakarta on June 21. Swab tests, also called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, use mucus samples taken from the nose or throat to detect COVID-19. (JP/P.J. Leo)

As Indonesia works on restoring its economy, concerns mount over dozens of infection clusters emerging from commercial office spaces that lack ventilation or room for social distancing, and are lax with health protocols.

Jakarta, which has recently reported rising positivity rates and hospital occupancy, is seeing new confirmed cases among office workers.

The capital city single-handedly brought the total number of infections nationwide beyond the 100,000 mark, recording 467 new confirmed cases.

The new nationwide tally for total infections as of Monday is 100,303, with the death toll hovering at 4,838.

Data from the Jakarta Health Agency collated by the COVID-19 task force show that as of July 26, there were 68 distinct office clusters in the capital.

The task force was still verifying and updating data on the number of confirmed cases, but it concluded that there had indeed been a rise in transmissions in work settings compared to when the city had yet to enter the transition from large-scale social restrictions (PSBB) on June 4.

Affected office buildings range from ministries to public institutions, to city administration agencies, state-owned enterprises and private companies, among other places, the data showed.

Most were located in Central and South Jakarta, although the authorities were reluctant to confirm a detailed breakdown of the locations.

In a letter dated July 26, Indonesia Eximbank corporate secretary Agus Windiarto confirmed that the company was locking down its offices for 14 days alongside other tenants in the District 8 office complex in South Jakarta “to avoid further contamination of the virus”.

The announcement was made following the discovery that an employee of Prosperity Tower within the compound had tested positive with COVID-19.

Other office buildings in the vicinity also reported confirmed cases of infection last week, including Pacific Century Place and Equity Tower.

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan said during a video briefing on Friday that offices and communal areas were the "most prone" to COVID-19 transmission amid gradually increasing mobility and activity.

A day prior, Jakarta Health Agency head Widyastuti told reporters that workers could be infected both inside or outside the office space, including during lunch breaks with colleagues without observing proper social distancing, but also during the commute or at home.

Office employees living in Jakarta’s satellite cities often make use of the affordable commuter railway line, which saw 111,626 passengers on Monday morning. The railway has been the source of recent infection clusters despite efforts by authorities to maintain the half-capacity rule.

Jakarta Manpower and Transmigration Agency head Andri Yansyah said offices with confirmed cases must close for three days for sterilization, and those infected and subjected to tracing must not go to work for 14 days. He said companies must not terminate affected workers and continue to pay their salaries.

The agency is currently tasked with monitoring companies for compliance with requirements stipulated in Gubernatorial Regulation No. 51/2020 on the transition from PSBB.

The provision requires companies to, among other things, maintain a maximum capacity of 50 percent of workers at any given period of time, enforce a minimum 1-meter social distancing rule as well as good hygiene and the wearing of masks. Those found violating the protocols are subject to a written reprimand or an administrative fine of Rp 25 million.

The city administration is calling on employees to report their companies for violations of health protocols.

Infection clusters among employees have also emerged in other regions, such as in government offices in East Kalimantan and media companies in Surabaya, East Java, kompas.com reported.

Achmad Yurianto, the Health Ministry's disease control and prevention director general and former spokesperson for COVID-19 affairs, highlighted the trend recently during one of his daily press briefings, which ceased on July 21 following the formation of the COVID-19 handling and national economic recovery committee by President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.

"Apparently, many new cases were found in work settings with bad air quality – these are offices with no smooth air circulation that rely on air conditioners, which keeps air circulating within a room," he said on July 16.

Studies have suggested that respiratory droplets in poorly ventilated spaces could contribute to the virus' spread, while improving ventilation would dilute it and clear out potentially infectious aerosols – transmission could be prompted by droplets circulating through air-conditioned ventilation.

An epidemiologist at Airlangga University, Laura Navika Yamani, said she had expected a surge in office clusters, given that many regions had yet to meet the requirements for reopening. She urged that work-from-home policies be maintained if possible.

Laura called on the government and companies not to ask employees to return to offices if their work setting did not allow for the implementation of health protocols such as social distancing and good air circulation. She also sought stricter enforcement of protocol violations.

"Employees do want to implement the protocols, but what if the management or their bosses don't provide the necessary facilities?," she said. “Office clusters will not only affect companies, but also the workers' families and communities.”

Companies still requiring employees to work at the office must also start by screening and scoring them based on their age, comorbidity factors and whether they use public transportation, Laura added. Anyone who fails to meet the required scores should work from home to mitigate any risks.

"We're in a pandemic. Companies can't expect workers to bring the same level of productivity as they did before the pandemic," she said.

An employee at a state-owned enterprise in Jakarta, who refused to be named, said her poorly ventilated office space did not implement the 50 percent capacity requirement – she has had to share a 12x8-meter room with around 10 other people.

"We want to work from home again because we're worried. But there's no longer a strong foundation to our request," she said.

“There used to be a gubernatorial regulation backing the work-from-home policy, but now it all depends on the bosses”.

Another employee at a government office in Surabaya, East Java, who also did not want to be named, said her office had been closed for weeks after several workers were found to have caught the virus.

She said the office handled it well by getting workers tested, but now that it was reopening, she was concerned the small rooms lacked adequate ventilation.

"My office hasn't been transparent about the number of people infected," she said.

Editor's note: Amended and added information on office buildings with confirmed cases.