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Indonesian daily COVID cases jump past 20,000 as Delta fears grow

Epidemiologist warns worst is to come as nation suffers another record infection rise

A woman walks past a mural promoting awareness of the COVID-19 outbreak in Jakarta on Thursday.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Indonesia's pandemic situation rapidly deteriorated on Thursday as the nation confirmed a new daily high of 20,574 new COVID-19 cases, a jump of more than 5,000 from the previous day.

The figure takes Indonesia's cumulative COVID-19 cases to 2,053,995 -- by far the biggest among its Southeast Asian peers; 355 additional deaths were also reported, taking the total deceased to 55,949.

The capital, Jakarta, saw the most new cases with 7,505, followed by Central Java at 4,384 and West Java at 3,053.

The archipelago nation's second wave is deepening. The government is striving to keep the economy running by not implementing lockdowns, while banking on a massive vaccination rollout to protect lives. But experts warn that the spread of the Delta variant means the situation is likely to worsen.

"From the calculations of the test conditions in Indonesia, the reported cases are only about 20% to 30% of the actual cases," said Dicky Budiman, epidemiologist at Australia's Griffith University. "From the positivity rate, Indonesia can potentially have 50,000 to 100,000 cases per day."

"We predict that cases will continue to rise until the end of June, and a massive spread of the new Delta variant will occur next month which could last until mid to late July," he added.

The government is targeting the immunization of 181.5 million people, roughly 70% of its population, in around a year to reach herd immunity. But progress has been slow. Since the vaccination program started in January, only 8.9% 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 already vaccinated 14.1% of its population, while Thailand, which only started its program in March, has already reached an 8.3% vaccination rate.

"Now [the rise in new cases] looks exponential and cannot be balanced by the addition of beds," Abdul Kadir, director general of health services in the Ministry of Health, said in an online news conference on Thursday. He added that one option to deal with the rise in infections was to convert hospital emergency rooms into COVID-19 treatment rooms, as well as filling town facilities like meeting halls with beds.

"This is a challenge because [it has been] different from last year during the early stages of the pandemic, where non-COVID patients decreased because they were avoiding hospitals. But now they need the treatment, and with the case spike, the number of [patients needed] to be handled is increased significantly."

The Indonesian government had expected cases to rise after the Islamic holiday of Idul Fitri (Eid al-Fitr) in mid-May, as travel restrictions imposed before and after the holiday could not deter all those who wished to travel to their home towns and villages.

The rise in cases prompted the Indonesian government on Monday to announce the tightening of neighborhood-level social restrictions in high-risk "red zones" from Tuesday for two weeks. Offices, restaurants, cafes and malls will only be allowed to operate at 25% capacity. As of Thursday, 29 areas have been identified as red zones, including areas of Jakarta.

The medical community has called for wider social restrictions. But President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, in an online national address on Wednesday, said the current neighborhood-level social restrictions are "still the most appropriate policy for the current context for controlling COVID-19, because it can run without shutting down the people's economy."

The president's reluctance to implement wider social restrictions, coupled with "his belief that Indonesia can quickly vaccinate its way out of trouble, risk prolonging the worsening COVID-19 outbreak," Eurasia Group said in a memo earlier this week.

"If the country descends into full-blown crisis... then [Jokowi's] authority will be significantly undermined. This would hamper his economic reform agenda, including overhauls of tax and financial sector regulations, and perhaps the prospects for the new capital city in Borneo," the group said.

Additional reporting by Ismi Damayanti

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