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Coronavirus

Indonesia tightens COVID rules in Java and Bali to fight 2nd wave

Malls, schools, mosques to close; people to telework in shift from economic focus

Gravediggers wearing personal protective equipment bury a COVID-19 victim in Jakarta on June 28.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Indonesia will introduce tighter social restrictions in its most populous island of Java and tourism hotspot Bali, as the country aims to arrest a devastating second wave of COVID-19 infections.

The move follows pleas from the medical community for more stringent measures in a country that the Red Cross called "teeter[ing] on the edge of a COVID-19 catastrophe," as hospital beds fill up and the vaccination rollout remains slow.

The new restrictions will begin on Saturday and last until July 20, President Joko Widodo said in an online address on Thursday.

"The COVID-19 pandemic in recent days has grown very rapidly because of a new variant," the president said. "This situation requires us to take decisive steps to stem the spread of COVID-19... This emergency [social restrictions] will include restrictions on community activities that are more stringent than those already in effect."

The Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs and Investment, headed by Widodo's right-hand man Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, will lead the implementation of the tighter restrictions.

The tighter Java-Bali restrictions will apply to a total of 122 cities and regencies -- including the capital, Jakarta -- with the target of reducing the daily new cases to below 10,000, according to a document from the ministry.

In the target areas, it stipulates things like 100% work from home for non-essential sector workers, the closure of shopping malls, schools and places of worship, and banning dining in at restaurants, with eateries only allowed to provide delivery and take-away services.

"The Indonesian National Armed Forces, police, and local governments will carry out strict supervision of the implementation of the tightening of community activities," the document said.

Panjaitan, in an online press conference outlining the restrictions, said governors, regents and mayors who do fail implement the new measures "will be subject to administrative sanctions" which could lead to temporary dismissal.

The minister also added that there were plans to distribute social assistance to the needy again during the semi-lockdown period "to protect the middle and lower economic community." He also poured cold water on plans for a July reopening of Bali, saying; "It's impossible to open with this delta [variant]. Don't think about it. We must prepare as many vaccines and health protocols as possible."

Indonesia has recorded daily new infections of more than 20,000 several times over the past week, and hit another daily high of 24,836 on Thursday. Other than the highly transmissible delta variant, the outbreak is blamed on the increased mobility before and after the Islamic holiday of Idul Fitri (Eid al-Fitr) in mid-May.

According to outbreak.info, compiled by Scripps Research in the U.S., Indonesia has a cumulative prevalence rate of 22% for the delta variant. The data portal describes cumulative prevalence as "the ratio of the sequences containing [the delta variant] to all sequences collected since the identification of [the variant] in that location."

Daily death counts have also steadily risen in the last week, with a record 504 people reported dead on Thursday. The positivity rate, which was below 10% at the start of June, has edged close to 20%, according to Our World in Data

The World Health Organization recommended last year that before the economy reopens, the positivity rate should remain at 5% or below for at least 14 days.

Widodo has opposed national lockdowns throughout the pandemic for the sake of the economy. His government initially opted for region-based large-scale social restrictions, then moved on to looser, small-scale rules at the neighborhood level.

Experts including the WHO advised bringing back tighter measures as cases began to climb, but as recently as last week the president had insisted that the existing restrictions were "still the most appropriate policy for the current context for controlling COVID-19, because it can run without shutting down the people's economy."

But the latest decision indicates that the president has conceded that a hit to the economy is inevitable in combatting the virus.

Documents seen by Nikkei Asia showed two plans were put forward to the president, one from Panjaitan's ministry, and another from COVID-19 Handling and National Economic Recovery Committee headed by Airlangga Hartarto, the country's Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs. The former had proposed more stringent measures, while the latter only made minor changes to the current social restrictions.

The recent surge in cases and the tighter measures to curb social activities are likely to impact Indonesia's economic recovery this year, especially as the new restrictions fall on Java, Indonesia's most populous island; it makes up 56% the archipelago's total population, and accounts for 58.7% of national gross domestic product.

Widodo said on Wednesday that he was still optimistic that second quarter GDP growth can reach 7%. The Finance Ministry had forecast a real gross domestic product growth rate of 7.1% to 8.3% on the year for the second quarter, but Sri Mulyani Indrawati, the finance minister, has already spoken of the need to lower that range.

The government's growth forecast for the whole year is 4.5% to 5.3%.

Widodo is also banking on vaccinations to get the country out of trouble, setting an immunization target of 181.5 million people -- roughly 70% of the population -- to reach herd immunity in around a year. Despite the president's instruction to expedite the rollout of vaccines, however, progress has been slow. Since the vaccination program started in January, only 10.7% of the population has received at least one shot, according to Our World in Data.

Malaysia, which started its inoculation drive later than Indonesia, has vaccinated 17.8% of its population, while Thailand, which only began in March, has reached a 9.9% vaccination rate.

Worryingly for Indonesia, children aged 0-18 account for 12.6% of total COVID-19 infections, with a mortality rate reaching 1.2%, according to the Indonesian Paediatrician Association. Aman Pulungan, chair of the association, told reporters on Sunday that "1 in 83 deaths due to COVID-19 is a child."

"Comorbidities like malnutrition, obesity, congenital abnormalities, cerebral palsy, and tuberculosis" contributed to the deaths, the chair said.

Widodo said on Monday that vaccinations for children ages 12 to 17 will start soon, using China's Sinovac Biotech vaccines, after the country's food and drugs administration granted emergency-use approval for the age group.

Additional reporting by Ismi Damayanti

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