A mask wearing ondel-ondel puppet which are featured in Betawi folk culture of Jakarta, decorates a Covid-19 vaccination center in Jakarta on June 23, 2021, as Indonesia's infection rates soar and hospitals are flooded with new patients, prompting warnings that the Southeast Asian nation's health crisis could spiral out of control. Photo: AFP / Goh Chai Hin

JAKARTA – The Indonesian government may have prevented tens of millions of people from returning to their hometowns in the immediate aftermath of the Ramadhan fasting month, but once the restriction was lifted in mid-May it could do little to stop the inevitable floodtide that followed.

The consequences of that are now being felt following a dramatic rise in Covid-19 infections from a plateau of 5,500 daily cases in early June to 15,508 on June 23, similar to what happened following the Christmas-New Year holidays.

It is the highest single-day rise since the pandemic hit the country in February last year, with the number of deaths rising by more than 100 a day over the last three weeks to 55,544 and a positivity rate now recorded at 49%.

Effective Friday, Hong Kong has banned all flights from Indonesia, placing the country on its extremely high-risk list, or Group A1, alongside Brazil, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and South Africa.

The latest outbreak has included a large number of cases of the so-called Delta variant, which health experts say is more transmittable than the original Covid-19 strain and was responsible for a huge increase in infections across India in recent months.

So far, the majority of cases have been in Central Java, where the local government has designated 13 districts and cities as red zones, including the provincial capital of Semarang and its surrounding area.

In the worst-hit district of Kudus, scores of stricken health workers recently injected with the Sinovac vaccine have all recovered quickly, encouraging news for a country that is relying heavily on China for its early vaccine rollout.

The South Tangerang Health Service in collaboration with the Teras City Mall held a mass vaccination for service workers in the Tourism Industry sector in South Tangerang on June 23, 2021.Photo: AFP / Donal Husni / NurPhoto

“Ninety percent of the health workers, who are all self-isolating, can return to work,” district health chief Badai Ismoyo said this week. “This shows that the vaccine given to them is really effective in protecting them against the worst conditions.”

Although those who have been inoculated can still be infected, Indonesia’s Health Ministry said last month that an evaluation of data collected since January 13, when Sinovac was first administered, showed it was 98% effective in preventing deaths among coronavirus patients.

The abnormal number of reported new cases in Kudus may be related to the fact that it is the hometown of tobacco billionaire Robert Hartono, Indonesia’s richest man, who is understood to have funded the equipment for a vigorous testing program there.

As he has done from the start, President Joko Widodo has ruled out lockdowns, insisting that social restrictions are the best option taking into account what he calls the “economic, social and political conditions.”

But in efforts to rein in the latest surge, the government has introduced a broader range of new measures, including limiting all offices in designated red zones to 25% of their capacity and calling off plans to re-open schools for now.

According to the Indonesian Pediatric Society, about 12% of the confirmed Covid-19 cases across the country have been children aged between six and 18, with a fatality rate of 3-5% – one of the world’s highest rates.

Activities at places of worship and other public areas have been banned, while restaurants and malls will be allowed to remain open, though they will also be limited to 25% of their capacity until at least July 7, depending on whether the situation improves.

People ignoring health protocol social distancing during rush hour on a train in Jakarta on June 23, 2021. Photo: AFP / Donal Husni / NurPhoto

In Jakarta and the weekend getaway of Bandung, where infections have shown the sharpest rise, police have erected roadblocks to restrict mobility between the two cities and also to other destinations in West Java, the country’s most populous province. 

Indonesia’s infections have now soared past the two million mark, which puts it 18th in the world. Although the number of deaths now tops 55,000, the ratio of 200 fatalities per million population is better than 113 other countries and territories, according to Worldmeters.

Last week saw more than 78,500 new cases, a 42% increase from the 55,000 cases the previous week – the fastest weekly surge since June last year when the pandemic was taking hold across Java and faster than during the last spike in February.

Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikan has described the increase as “extraordinary.” Ministry data shows that the hospital bed occupancy rate for Covid-19 victims has passed the 60% threshold, with the healthcare system in Jakarta, West and Central Java under increasing strain.

In Jakarta’s middle-class suburb of Tangerang, for example, one hospital is having to implement a selection process for patients waiting to be admitted to intensive care units as cases continue to surge.

Health workers remove the body of a man who died of Covid-19 at his home in Bandung on June 23, 2021, as Indonesiaís infection rates soar and hospitals are flooded with new patients, prompting warnings that the Southeast Asian nation’s health crisis could spiral out of control. Photo: AFP / Timur Matahari

Meanwhile, the vaccination program has picked up pace after a delay in the delivery of supplies. President Widodo has called for 700,000 doses to be administered each day this month and has set a target of one million doses in July as the country seeks to vaccinate 181.5 million citizens by May next year.

So far, 12.4 million Indonesians have been fully vaccinated, or 4.6% of the population, and another 23.5 million are awaiting their second shot, with indications that vaccination resistance isn’t a serious issue. By comparison, India has vaccinated 3.7% and Brazil 11.5%.

Health officials say Indonesia has received 104.7 million doses so far, consisting of 94.5 million doses of the Sinovac-manufactured vaccine, 8.2 million doses of Astra-Zeneca and another two million doses of China’s Sinopharm.

A small percentage of Sinovac arrived in bulk form, which is then processed by Bio Farma, the state pharmaceutical company.