Asia-Pacific

Warnings that Indonesia is on the brink of a coronavirus surge

Experts believe there could be thousands of undetected cases of coronavirus in Indonesia. Source: INA Photo Agency/Sipa USA

Indonesia's COVID-19 response has been criticised by experts.

With close to 900 confirmed cases and at least 78 fatalities, the death rate from coronavirus in Indonesia is among the highest in the world.

But as of the weekend, only around 2,500 tests had been conducted across the country which has a population of 264 million.

"That's equivalent to just 0.02 per cent of the 10 million residents of Jakarta," said Ahmad Syarif, an Indonesian-based political analyst for Bowergroup Asia.

He told SBS News the death rate is high because there is a large number of undetected cases across the country.

"The government is not doing enough tests for its people. Tests [are] being conducted mostly in Jakarta, however the spread right now is not only in Jakarta, it's going to West Java and Bali."

Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, has one of the lowest testing rates in the world.

A study released this week by the London-based Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases estimated that just two per cent of the country's coronavirus cases have been reported.

Volunteers from Prevention Task Force for COVID-19 Indonesia spray disinfectants at an Indonesian Mosque.
Volunteers from Prevention Task Force for COVID-19 Indonesia spray disinfectants at an Indonesian mosque.
Sipa USA Zikri Maulana / SOPA Images/Sipa

Dr Ede Surya Darmawan from the Indonesian Public Health Association said that the virus is more widespread than what current figures are suggesting.

"Cases are still underreported, and this is a problem," he told SBS News.

"When the first case was announced, we said 'please do more testing and more contract tracing', as we need that to find out how big the problem is, how we overcome it, and how we can prepare."

People collapsing in the streets

Indonesia has reported 20 deaths from the coronavirus in the past 24 hours. 

The vast majority of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 are in Jakarta, where there are growing reports of people experiencing acute respiratory failure.

"There's around three-four cases this week, where people are collapsing in the streets," Mr Syarif said. 

Videos circulating on social media purport to show just that, but SBS News has been unable to verify the vision.

Government too slow to act

Mr Syarif said the Indonesian government's response to the crisis has been marked by "denial, complacency and a lack of transparency about the location and number of positive cases".

"The initial response was not good. I mean, the Indonesian government [was] undermining the risk of this COVID-19 in January and February."

He said earlier this year, at the peak of the outbreak in China, President Joko Widodo announced plans to offer incentives for foreign travellers in an effort to boost the economy.

"This is inviting people to go to Bali while many other cities in Asia are considering or already closing down [their] borders."

This week, however, the Indonesian government ramped up its response, enforcing a two-week emergency period in Jakarta, aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

In the capital, there are limited public transport services, with people urged to work from home. Cinemas and other public entertainment centres have been shut. 

But Dr Darmawan said people are not properly adhering to the new social distancing measures.

He said he and others in his profession are urging authorities to tighten the restrictions to get people off the streets.

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country, and in an effort to stop the spread on infections at large religious gatherings, Jakarta's Governor Anies Baswedan has suspended all religious activities in the city.

Mr Syarif said since, high attendances at such gatherings have been "massively reduced".

But he said small religious gatherings of 20-30 people, known as "pengajian" are still taking place in some areas of the city. 

Mass rapid testing program announced

Last week, the Indonesian government announced nationwide rapid testing to speed up the detection of infections.

Already, there have been significant daily increases in the number of cases, though Mr Syarif said that's a good thing. 

"Yesterday we saw a lot more positive cases, it means we are seeing changes in the government approach."

Anticipating a surge in the number of hospital admissions, President Widodo called on health workers to prepare contingency plans to cope with a potential influx of patients. 

The 2018 Asian Games athletes village has now be turned into an emergency hospital. 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo inspects a room during a visit at the Asian Games athlete's village which has been converted into a temporary hospital.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo inspects a room during a visit at the Asian Games athletes village which has been converted into a temporary hospital.
ANTARA FOTO POOL

But there are concerns it's not enough. Indonesia has a poor healthcare system compared to other countries heavily impacted by the virus. 

Dr Darmawan said the already-stretched health system may not be able to cope with an influx. 

"[There are] patients in long queues. They need testing, [but are] also seeking medical treatment, but some cannot be treated in the hospital. Almost all the hospitals are now overloaded."

And he also said there aren't enough protections in place for health workers. At least eight doctors and one nurse have died from COVID-19. 

Australians must stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people. Indoors, there must be a density of no more than one person per four square metres of floor space.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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