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Jakarta Post

Grim picture as Indonesia enters sixth month of COVID-19 outbreak

  • Gemma Holliani Cahya and Marchio Irfan Gorbiano

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, September 3, 2020   /   09:35 am
Grim picture as Indonesia enters sixth month of COVID-19 outbreak President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo greets street vendors during a visit to East Java recently. (Presidential Press Bureau/Muchlis Jr)

As Indonesia enters its sixth month since COVID-19 first reached it shores, the administration of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo continues to struggle to get on top of the public health crisis, as indicated by the resurgence of spikes in new cases, while other countries in the region, like Thailand and the Philippines, have been able to claim success in their handling of the pandemic.

Indonesia reported 3,075 new cases on Wednesday, bringing the country's overall tally to 180,646, data from the Health Ministry’s website show.

The country witnessed 111 more deaths on Wednesday, taking the total number of fatalities to 7,616, the highest death toll in Southeast Asia.

Read also: Indonesia's latest official COVID-19 figures

Thailand, on the other hand, has reported zero cases of local transmission for 100 days in a row, joining a small group of places like Taiwan where the pathogen has been virtually eliminated. Thailand has not recorded a single case of community transmission since May 26, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday, based on data from the country’s health ministry.

The Philippines’ health ministry, meanwhile, recorded 2,218 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, the country's lowest daily increase in cases in five weeks, and 27 additional deaths.

Public health experts and epidemiologists have blamed the worsening situation in Indonesia on what they call a "business-as-usual” approach taken by the central government and regional administrations, some of which have decided to relax social restrictions while case numbers have been continuing to rise.

Yudi Fajar, a senior researcher at the SMERU Research Institute, said that despite the severity of the public health crisis, coordination and policy implementation were mostly relegated to ministries and other government institutions, much like how the bureaucracy worked prior to the pandemic.

A jumble of policies and actions has been the result, creating confusion among the public, Yudi said.

“Such indecisiveness has been one of the main reasons there is a heightened sense of false security among the public, which has in turn worsened the situation. This is a vicious cycle,” he told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

To effectively handle the crisis, Yudi said the government needed to strengthen its institutions and improve its workflow and coordination.

In recent weeks, more and more municipalities and regencies have been classified as high-risk “red zones”, where new infection clusters have been detected, while the country as a whole has seen consecutive record daily highs in new confirmed cases.

Data from the nation’s COVID-19 task force show that on Aug. 16 only slightly above 5 percent of the archipelago was classified as red zones. By Aug. 30, that percentage had nearly tripled.

Epidemiologists have also raised concerns the rate of infection could overwhelm the country’s health facilities, putting health care workers at greater risk. As of Wednesday, at least 102 doctors had died from COVID-19. The deaths of many more nurses, midwives and other health workers are not fully accounted for.

Despite the grim picture, many people are continuing to live their lives like normal, ignoring basic safety measures, like wearing a mask in public. The central and local governments have also yet to impose strict measures to ban large gatherings and restrict mobility to curb the virus.

Read also: Patients crowd hospitals as Indonesia loses 183 'priceless' medical workers

Indonesian Epidemiologists Association (PAEI) chairman Hariadi Wibisono said the government’s promotion of the idea of a "new normal" was to blame for the rising infections, a concept popularized as authorities sought to jumpstart the flagging economy.

“The government’s policies have been ambivalent, as they permit the reopening of public places, allowing people to gather. So, people have the perception that they can adapt to a new life now that the war on COVID-19 is over. But the virus is still here with us,” Hariadi said.

President Jokowi’s administration has faced criticism since the early days of the pandemic for its lackluster efforts to contain the transmission of the virus. The President insisted that a complete lockdown was not the right approach for the country, and chose instead to implement a partial lockdown through so-called “large-scale social restrictions” (PSBB) on March 31, almost a month after Indonesia confirmed its first cases on March 2.

The President also attracted public criticism following his call to “peacefully coexist” with COVID-19 on May 7, as the country stepped up preparations for the introduction of “new normal” protocols as a prerequisite for the easing of PSBB measures.

“Until an effective vaccine is discovered, we have to peacefully coexist with COVID-19 for a certain period going forward. And we are lucky, as at the beginning we chose to implement PSBB measures, not a lockdown. The PSBB measures involved restrictions on activities in public spaces,” Jokowi said in June.
Jokowi also previously told his ministers that Indonesia needed to flatten the curve “at all costs”, setting a goal to bring transmission under control by July.

On Monday, Jokowi was quoted by Reuters as saying that the pandemic would reach its peak in Indonesia in September and that it would begin to taper off soon after.

In its most recent “new-normal” policy, the government has allowed more schools to open, both in moderate-risk yellow zones and in low-risk green zones.

Read also: Curfews will do little to stop COVID-19 surge in Greater Jakarta, say experts

In Jakarta, Governor Anies Baswedan recently decided that cinemas would soon be allowed to reopen, despite the fact the capital recently recorded its highest daily increase in infections.

“We will prepare the complete regulation soon, which will cover all aspects pertaining to the implementation of health protocols, following the [COVID-19] task force’s recommendations,” Anies said

On Sunday, four days after Anies made the announcement, Jakarta recorded 1,114 new cases, the highest daily spike so far, as the capital city returned to being the country’s epicenter of the outbreak, surpassing East Java.

Laura Navika Yamani, an epidemiologist from the Surabaya-based Airlangga University, said the fact Indonesia had not reached its peak of the outbreak even after six months was a clear indication that measures to control the spread of the virus had failed.

Laura said the government could rectify the situation by putting the economy on the backburner and beginning to follow the guidelines made by epidemiologists.

“There is no other way other than implementing health protocols in these circumstances," Laura said.