‘New Asian epicentre’: Indonesia overtakes India as Covid-19 infections surge

Rapid spread of highly infectious Delta variant triggers hospital bed and oxygen shortages

Grave diggers bury a coffin in Semarang, Java
Grave diggers bury a coffin in Semarang, Java
(Image credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

Indonesia is braced for its worst outbreak of Covid-19 so far after a near vertical increase in infections pushed it beyond India to become the most impacted Asian nation.

The world’s fourth most populous country has recorded more than 40,000 new cases for two days running, prompting officials to warn that the highly infectious Delta variant “is spreading outside the most populous island of Java”, Nikkei Asia reports.

Indonesia now has around 132 cases per million people, compared with India’s 26 as of Sunday, according to Oxford University tracking. The Southeast Asian nation’s per capita death rate is also higher, averaging “three per million people, compared with less than one in the south Asian country”, the news site adds.

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‘Brink of disaster’

Indonesia on Tuesday reported 47,899 new infections, a record high, up from 40,427 the previous day. India's cases, meanwhile, dropped to 32,906 from 37,154. The rapid rise in infections is “believed to be underestimated due to poor rates of testing and contact tracing”, The Telegraph reports, but has nonetheless caused “similar hospital bed and oxygen shortages seen in India during its crisis earlier this year”.

Health minister Budi Sadikin told reporters on Tuesday that Covid-19 bed occupancy rates in the nation’s capital, Jakarta, are close to 90%, adding that the government is preparing for an increase of 30% over the next two weeks, as well as accelerating cases in other regions.

Hospitals on Java, the country’s most populated island, have been “deluged in recent weeks, with many people struggling to get treatment and hundreds dying while self-isolating”, Reuters reports.

Meanwhile, “cases and bed occupancy rates also have risen in parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan”, the news agency adds, as well as “more remote regions like West Papua, where health facilities are less equipped to handle an outbreak”.

Senior minister Luhut Pandjaitan told a news conference that the country is already experiencing “our worst-case scenario”, adding: “If we’re talking about 60,000 [cases a day] or slightly more than that, we’re okay. We are hoping not for 100,000, but even if we get there, we are preparing for that.”

Experts have predicted that “if the spread continues unabated” it may “push Indonesia’s health care system to the brink of disaster”, CNN says, a similarly grim projection to the ones made about India’s overwhelmed health system in late April.

The island nation is “reaping the costs of not implementing strict lockdowns nor investing enough in efficient contact-tracing systems”, with health minister Sadikin previously telling the broadcaster that authorities had not realised how quickly the virus had been spreading in this latest wave of the strain that has come to dominate global infections.

Vaccine push

The Philippines announced yesterday that it would ban travellers from Indonesia amid the rapid rise in cases, while “the government has scrambled to boost capacity and secure sufficient oxygen supply”, The Telegraph says.

Authorities have also “converted several buildings into isolation facilities”, Reuters reports, as well as deploying “fresh graduate doctors and nurses to treat Covid-19 patients and importing treatment drugs and oxygen”.

The true scale of Indonesia’s outbreak was illustrated by a survey published on Saturday that revealed “almost half the population of Indonesia’s national capital Jakarta may have contracted Covid-19”, The Independent says.

The study conducted by Jakarta’s provincial health office, the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 44.5% of those tested had coronavirus antibodies.

This equates to around 4.7 million of the total 10.6 million people in the Indonesian capital and “is at least 12 times the number of confirmed cases – 382,000 – of Covid-19 reported in Jakarta until that time”, the paper adds.

The islands of Bali and Java have been placed under emergency lockdown, while the government said it is “analysing the situation” to decide whether to “extend the current emergency coronavirus curbs that will expire on July 20”, Reuters says.

A delivery of 3.5 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in Indonesia on Tuesday as part of the global jab sharing programme Covax. Authorities are now looking to boost the vaccination rollout that has so far seen fewer than 20 per 100 people receive at least one dose, according to Oxford University tracking.

President Joko Widodo yesterday told a press briefing that vaccines are Indonesia’s only “hope to recover from this global health crisis”, adding: “Fair and equal access to vaccines must be guaranteed since we see there is still a wide gap in vaccine access throughout the country.”

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