Australia must urgently help Indonesia with its Covid-19 crisis
2 Jul 2021|

As millions of Australians cope with lockdowns implemented to address a surge in Covid-19 cases numbering in the dozens, spare a thought for what’s unfolding in Indonesia—and if you’re in the federal government, spare plenty more for what Australia should urgently be doing about it.

The incidence of Covid-19 is currently skyrocketing in the country. And the Delta variant is a major factor.

On 1 July, Indonesia set a new daily record for new Covid cases with 24,836, trumping the previous record of 21,807 set on 30 June. This represents an exponential rise from the relatively low daily numbers of around 5,000 over the past several months till the first week of June, and brings the number of positive cases to over 2.2 million.

The share of Covid tests that have been positive is over 22%, making Indonesia one of just a handful of countries registering such high percentages (by comparison, the number for India now is just over 2%).

Recorded daily Covid-related deaths have also been rising. Yesterday’s tally was 504, up from the previous day’s figure of 467. This brings the total official number of Covid deaths in Indonesia to just under 59,000.

These numbers are bound to be dramatically under-representative of reality. Indonesia has one of the lowest testing rates in the world. The government has stepped up testing over the past month, and has now committed to conducting 410,000 tests nationwide. But even at its current peak, the rate remains desperately low: only just over 300 per million are being tested daily.

Moreover, most of the recorded increase in cases is occurring in the major cities and provinces of Java. Bed occupancy rates in hospitals in Jakarta and the provinces of Banten, West Java, Central Java and the special region of Yogyakarta are reportedly ‘alarming’. This might be a function of people moving among the most populous parts of the nation during mid-May’s mudik (the post-Ramadan ‘homecoming’ tradition that normally sees many millions return to their family villages), notwithstanding the government’s having banned it this year.

The data could simply reflect, however, that these relatively developed regions have been recording the highest proportion of the tests conducted across the archipelago (the government’s promised increase in testing is focused in those provinces). In short, the spread of the virus elsewhere in the nation might be far higher than the figures suggest.

The death rate is also likely to be grossly under-representing reality. Burying the deceased is starting to become a problem.

Even President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), who has come under criticism over his mishandling of the pandemic, is now acting with a greater degree of urgency if not the degree of decisiveness that the situation demands. On 1 July he announced emergency measures restricting certain public activities in Java and Bali, including the requirement that businesses defined as non-essential operate on a 100% remote or work-from-home basis. Other measures aimed at securing medical equipment, drug supplies and oxygen for medical purposes have been drawn up. Separately, vaccination rates have been surging, albeit from a very low base.

But Jokowi fell short of declaring ‘lockdowns’ even in the most seriously affected areas. As Griffith University epidemiologist Dicky Budiman has observed, rules ‘stopping public mobility and interaction’ have not been instituted. This may well prove one of the most irresponsible decisions that Jokowi has taken to date.

With Covid flaring again in Australia, the Morrison government’s focus is understandably on the domestic aspects of the pandemic. So far as its attention to Indonesia’s problems with the disease is concerned, it deserves credit for various actions it has taken under its Indonesia Covid-19 development response plan.

But it needs to pay urgent attention to the situation unfolding so quickly now, just as Australia has in the past when tragedy and disaster have struck our neighbour. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has the wherewithal to quickly develop a package of assistance that could help Indonesia to better sandbag itself against the most ferocious wave of the disease to have struck the nation since the pandemic began.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne should not waste any time in speaking with her Indonesian counterpart, securing a substantial boost in support for Indonesia and signing off on such a package, which could include everything from facemasks and ventilators to testing kits and even as many doses of the AstraZenica vaccine as we can spare. She should also be working urgently with our Quad partners, especially the United States and Japan, as well as other like-minded countries, to coordinate assistance as expeditiously as possible.

Given the inadequacies of the Jokowi administration’s general management of the pandemic and of its response to this latest surge, whatever we and others do to help Indonesia may well fall far short of what will be necessary to save many thousands of lives. But for the sake of those whose lives we can help save, and our own national interests, we shouldn’t hesitate to act.