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Indonesia tops 1m COVID infections in never-ending first wave

Health experts accuse government of half measures, as leaders fear economic risk

Indonesia looks to vaccinate 180 million citizens in the next year, a level that could let the country achieve herd immunity.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Indonesia's coronavirus infection count has exceeded 1 million, far beyond that of its Southeast Asian neighbors, as efforts to bend the curve have come up empty.

The 13,094 new cases reported Tuesday evening by the government put Indonesia's total at 1.01 million, roughly double the caseload of the Philippines, which has the second-highest figure in the 10-nation region. Indonesia's 28,468 fatalities from COVID-19 also lead Southeast Asia.

Indonesia has set several daily records since the new year began, the last being 14,224 new infections reported Jan. 16. Government officials suspect year-end travel caused this explosion in cases.

Authorities tightened movement restrictions on the islands of Java and Bali, largest in terms of residents and tourists respectively. Air travelers entering or leaving Java, as well as train passengers on the island, must present proof of a negative rapid antibody test up to three days prior to departure.

Those entering or leaving Bali by air need to show proof of a negative polymerase chain reaction test up to seven days before departing.

Medical experts question this approach for containing the spread of the disease.

"The government's response is inadequate as a means to control movement, and it sends a message that it's OK to take a trip if one can prove a negative test," an expert said.

Police recently arrested individuals accused of being part of a forgery ring selling fake COVID-19 test documents, local media report. The ring was run out of Soekarno-Hatta International Airport serving Jakarta, and the suspects include airport insiders.

Indonesia, the most populous country in Southeast Asia at 273 million, never saw a clear drop-off in cases since the first infections were detected in March 2020. In other words, the nation is still battling its first coronavirus wave.

One factor in the high case count is that neither the central nor local governments have undertaken drastic lockdown measures, fearing the economic impact. Stay-at-home orders risk a particularly severe blow to Indonesia's economy, which depends heavily on internal demand compared with other Southeast Asian countries. Household consumption alone accounts for 60% of gross domestic product.

President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, remains committed to balancing the pandemic response with economic health. His government sees vaccine distribution as the highest priority.

Indonesia aims to vaccinate 180 million residents within a year. This represents about 70% of the population, the threshold estimated to allow herd immunity. Jokowi took the first Chinese-made vaccine himself on Jan. 13 to ease misgivings among citizens over the safety of the inoculations.

The sudden rise in infections has squeezed hospital capacity further. On Jan. 19, the Jakarta capital region government revealed that 87% of isolation beds at coronavirus-designated hospitals were filled.

Wiku Adisasmito, spokesperson for the national COVID-19 task force, told Nikkei that it is essential to improve awareness of sticking with disease prevention protocols, such as wearing masks. He cited the need to toughen penalties against violators.

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