Right on Australia’s doorstep, the world’s fourth-most populated country is grappling with a coronavirus catastrophe as cases continue to rise.
- After a nationwide stay-at-home order, Jakarta announced a transitional period dubbed the “new normal”
- Experts say the “new normal” was misunderstood by the population
- The Government task force has been widely criticised about the handling of its response
Indonesia has recorded more than 1,000 infections every day for the past few weeks.
Its total of more than 82,000 confirmed infections is the highest in South-East Asia and will soon overtake China, while the number of deaths could be much higher than the 3,783 reported by Johns Hopkins University.
As the numbers continue to mount, concerns have been raised over the Government’s response, including the commercialisation of testing kits, which have become too expensive for many Indonesians to afford.
Indonesia has only conducted some 657,700 tests for a population of more than 270 million, which have returned an overall positive rate of about 12 per cent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Only the capital city of Jakarta has met minimum daily testing requirements established by the WHO of one test per 1,000 people.
The number of tests in other parts of the country such as the densely populated provinces of East Java, West Java and Banten remains below 0.5 per 1,000 people per week.
Did the Government prioritise the economy over public health?
After a nationwide stay-at-home order, the Indonesian Government announced a transitional period in May dubbed the “new normal” to allow the resumption of economic activity following mass unemployment and rapidly rising poverty.
The relaxation of restrictions came even as case numbers continued to rise.
“The state budget in Indonesia does not have the fiscal ability to provide a stimulus for middle-to-lower income communities,” said Bhima Yudhistira, an economist at the Jakarta-based Institute for Development of Economics and Finance.
“The Government were also unable to swiftly move and manage the number of people who have lost their jobs, or the loss in retail and purchasing power due to the pandemic.”
Pandu Riono, epidemiologist and public health expert at the University of Indonesia, told the ABC the term “new normal” was not properly understood by the public.
Large clusters started to appear shortly after restrictions were eased, erupting at factories and industrial areas in Central Java and, at its peak, contributing to 33 per cent of the national total.
“Maybe the Government intended to keep the public calm, but the community should have still been made more aware of the threats [of the coronavirus].”
When daily cases jumped to more than 2,000 per day last month, Mr Widodo’s Government replaced the “new normal” slogan with “adapting to new habits”, to quash any misunderstandings.
But Dr Riono said it was too late.
“The figures represent a misunderstanding by the population,” he said.
“The misconception has influenced people’s behaviour, so it’s no surprise that the number of cases has increased.”
Many can’t afford expensive swab tests
In Indonesia, test kits are not subsidised nor government-funded.
The country’s COVID-19 response is headed by a specialised task force run by the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, which also issues all import permits for test kits.
All medical items related to COVID-19 go through the task force, bypassing the Ministry of Health and the National Agency of Food and Drug Control.
A swab test, widely considered as the most accurate method of testing for COVID-19, cost an upwards of $200 — often more than a month’s wages for many Indonesians.
Instead, rapid tests, which detect antibodies in infected people’s blood, have been commonly used across the country, even though they are less accurate and do not detect infection early in the incubation period.
Last week, the Ministry of Health issued a regulation to cap the price of rapid tests at 150,000 rupiah ($15), but local media has reported that many hospitals around the country have already purchased the tests at a much higher price, therefore unwilling to sell them at a loss.
No penalty was attached to exceeding the maximum price on tests, leaving many hospitals to still charge patients at will.
Alvin Lie of Indonesia’s national Ombudsman told the ABC the coronavirus task force did not have the relevant authority or infrastructure in place to adequately regulate the importation of medicinal goods.
“Where the tests are imported from, how the quality is and how it’s being used are all in the hands of the task force,” Mr Lie said, arguing that primary responsibility for the management of COVID-19 should lie with the President and Ministry of Health.
“In Indonesia there are hundreds of different ways to do a rapid test for COVID-19, but there are no quality or pricing standards.”
Tests have become commercialised, government watchdog says
With restrictions easing, Indonesians are once again able to travel domestically as long as they can provide a doctor-issued COVID-19 negative test result.
Several regional officials have also required those who want to travel between districts and people participating in other non-related activities, such as taking college entrance exams or going to court, to take a rapid test, according to the Ombudsman.
Mr Lie said a lack of stringent national regulations had allowed test results to be misused.
“These rules have certainly turned rapid tests into commercialised businesses,” he said, adding it has become more of an administrative requirement, rather than for the purpose of prevention.
The Government task force has been widely criticised about the handling of its response, particularly regarding the need for a more systematic approach.
Earlier this month, the Agriculture Ministry drew widespread mockery after it announced it had invented an “antivirus” necklace made of eucalyptus.
Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo said he was “certain” that the necklace could “kill the coronavirus” if worn for 30 minutes. He was later forced to backtrack after criticism from public health experts.
Netty Prasetiyani Heryawan, a parliamentarian from the opposition Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), said the Government should instead be focused on proven methods of prevention and treatment.
“The Government should focus on urgent matters … [including the development of] medical devices proven to work and needed by the community, such as low-cost ventilators and other innovations,” she said, according to local media Tirto.ID.
The ABC has contacted the Indonesian Government and Health Ministry and have not received a response by publication.
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