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, Photo: AFP / Goh Chai Hin

JAKARTA – Bracing for a third wave of the coronavirus, Indonesia has rejected tighter restrictions and chosen the path of least resistance in what President Joko Widodo calls “downstream mitigation efforts” that he hopes will see Covid-19 gradually reduced to the level of influenza.

Banking on the otherwise highly-contagious Omicron variant causing fewer hospitalizations, the government has cut the quarantine period for double-vaccinated overseas travelers from seven to five days and plans to turn many quarantine facilities into isolation centers.

At the same time, the Health Ministry has increased testing and tracing quotas across the country to 5.75% per 1,000 people a week, about five times above the ratio recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to Siti Nadia Tamazi, director of the ministry’s prevention and control of infectious diseases department, the sharp increase is needed for the early detection of new Covid-19 clusters before they enter the wider community.

The total number of daily new cases has climbed from a low of 106 on December 13 last year to 3,000 on January 24 and 17,800 on February 2, with some experts predicting it could easily exceed the second-wave peak of 56,700 recorded on July 15 last year.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Indonesia has logged more than 4.38 million infections, including 144,373 deaths – the ninth highest toll in the world – but is in a distant 117th place when measured by deaths per million of the population.

Comparative figures for infections per million are even more surprising, leaving Indonesia in 165th place with 15,700, against a global average of 49,000 and a high of 464,000 recorded by the tiny European principality of Andorra.

A Balinese temple priest receives a dose of Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine during mass Covid-19 vaccination program in Ubud, Gianyar, Bali, Indonesia on March 16, 2021. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Johanes Christo

About 128 million, or 61.4% of a targeted 208.2 million Indonesians, have received at least two vaccinations, though Health Ministry data shows that includes less than half of the 10.4 million elderly and more vulnerable citizens.

Booster shots were made publicly available for the first time last month. Delta still appears to be the dominant variant, but health officials say that could be changing rapidly, particularly in Jakarta and its two surrounding provinces.

The total number of Omricon cases has reached 2,980, of which 1,602 were international arrivals, mostly from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. About 47% of Omicron patients have been vaccinated.

The Home Affairs Ministry’s latest instruction regulating public activity restrictions on Java and Bali identify only two areas – the Banten province capital of Serang and the East Java district of Pamekasan – as remaining on Level 3 status.

Outside of that, the higher restrictions only apply to Jayawijaya, the district which covers the Baliem Valley in Papua’s rugged Central Highlands, and the remote Yapen islands off Papua’s northwest coast.

“This may be perceived as an ever-changing policy,” said Maritime Affairs Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan, who is in charge of the nation’s overall Covid response. “In fact, we must find the best combination between public health and economic interests.

“If things go wrong and the condition gets worse, we can take quick and measurable steps, as directed by the president,” he added after a limited January 31 Cabinet meeting where Widodo reminded his ministers to  prioritize “precautionary principles.”

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s opening to the world is progressing at a snail’s pace, with international tourism traffic falling by 61.5% to 1.56 million last year, compared with 4.05 million in 2020 and a record 16.1 million in pandemic-free 2019.

Only 79,000 of last year’s overseas arrivals came by air, mostly to Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport. The rest either arrived by sea from Singapore, or across the border between Malaysia’s Sarawak province and West Kalimantan and from Timor Leste into Indonesia’s West Timor. 

Balinese Hindus preform a dance during a purifying ceremony called Melasti amid the Covid-19 pandemic on the beach in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia on March 11 2021. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Johanes Christo

Although Panjaitan again declared Bali open to tourism this week and Singapore Airlines (SIA) announced the resumption of four flights a week to the resort island from February 16, it will have little impact as long as there are still quarantine and complex visa requirements.

The government made the same dramatic announcement last October 14 for international travelers from 19 countries. But apart from private jets, there hasn’t been a single international flight into Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport since then.

Singapore Airlines plans to use Boeing 787-10 aircraft, configured to carry 337 passengers, for the re-opened service, which local tour operators forlornly hope will encourage other international carriers to follow suit. Previously SIA operated five flights a day.

Aviation sources say they believe the restoration served as a tourist “sweetener” following the January 25 talks between President Joko Widodo and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong aimed at strengthening bilateral relations.

Observers note the leaders discussed current travel arrangements, including a Vaccinated Travel Lane (VCL) between Jakarta and Singapore, and Indonesia’s decision to resume tourism travel to specific resorts on the islands of Bintan and Batam.