JAKARTA -- President Joko Widodo pledged Wednesday to provide free COVID-19 vaccinations to all Indonesians, a promise that comes as daily cases continue to surge in the Southeast Asian country.
"The COVID-19 vaccine for the community is free," Widodo said in a national address on YouTube. "I instruct all levels of the cabinet, ministries, institutions and local governments to prioritize the vaccine budget in 2021. I instruct the minister of finance to prioritize and reallocate other budgets related to the availability and free vaccination so that there is no reason for the public not to get vaccines."
Jokowi, as the president is commonly known, added that he will be the first to receive a vaccine shot "to give confidence that the vaccine used is safe." But he did not specify whether all inoculations would be free, whether foreign nationals will also be able to receive the shots, nor did he touch on the cost.
The archipelago's sprawling geography will also be a logistical nightmare for a mass vaccination program.
Indonesia's health ministry has already approved six vaccines -- AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, Sinovac and local pharmaceutical Bio Farma -- for use. But the government still needs approval from its food and drugs administration to go ahead with a vaccination program.
The government is aiming to start the program later this month or early next year, with initial shots going to high risk workers such as medical personnel, military, police, and civil servants including teachers.
The country received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines in early December, with 1.2 million doses of Sinovac shots arriving from China. The president previously said an additional 1.8 million will arrive by early January.
The country has the highest number of coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia, with a cumulative total of 629,429 cases and 19,111 deaths. The archipelago now regularly sees around 6,000 increases in daily cases.
The pandemic has hit the Indonesian economy hard, with the country falling into recession for the first time in two decades. The country's real gross domestic product plunged 3.49% in the three months ended September from a year earlier, according to data released on Thursday. The slowdown follows a 5.32% contraction in the previous quarter, plunging the archipelago into a recession -- defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth.
The Asian Development Bank recently downgraded its growth outlook for Indonesia this year to -2.2% from its previous -1% forecast. For 2021, the multilateral institution now sees a growth of 4.5%, down from previous forecast of 5.3%.