UN News asked Resident Coordinator Valerie Julliand about the situation in the country and what the rest of the world could learn from Indonesia’s experience.
What is the current situation in Indonesia?
Indonesia, like many countries in Southeast Asia, had until recently been successful in mitigating the worst health impacts of COVID-19; some form of physical distancing has been in place for a long time.
Since taking up my post here in October 2020, I have only met most of my colleagues on screen and have avoided Jakarta’s notorious traffic jams almost entirely. Yet the unhealthy impacts of the pandemic are striking.
Indonesia has made remarkable strides in reducing poverty over the past decade, but COVID-19 has rolled back some of those vital gains. As elsewhere, the economic burden of COVID-19 has fallen disproportionately on women and other marginalized groups.
Since May, however, the health crisis has become more and more urgent. New cases of COVID-19 have quintupled over the past month.
On July 17, Indonesia reported more new daily infections than India and Brazil, leading several media outlets to dub it Asia’s new COVID epicenter. And on July 21, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) said there had been more than 77,500 deaths in the country.
Indonesia’s total of some 3 million confirmed cases is still far below the more than 31 million India has recorded since the start of the pandemic.
But comparisons have inevitably been drawn with India’s tragic spring surge. In some areas, overwhelmed hospitals have been forced to turn away patients and groups of volunteers have mobilized to locate oxygen tanks and build coffins.
How did things get so bad so fast?
This is due to several factors. The outbreak is due to the highly transmissible Delta variant and we are also seeing an increase in the number of cases in the region and in many other countries. But on a deeper level, there simply was no sense of collective wisdom during the pandemic.
The same oversights that happened in one country were repeated in another. Global experience has shown that strict enforcement of public health measures is essential to contain epidemics, and that these measures must be guided by accurate surveillance of the transmission of the virus. This did not happen in India. What we are seeing here in Indonesia is also in part the result of mass gatherings and travel when the infection rate was still high.
In addition, the vaccinations were not rolled out quickly enough. As of July 17, six out of 100 people in Indonesia’s population of 270 million had received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, with low coverage among the elderly and other vulnerable groups.
Indonesia has obtained a relatively good supply of vaccines, including from the COVAX plant – which is supported by organizations such as WHO and UNICEF – and is ahead of other countries in the region.
But there has been a global lack of solidarity despite the UN Secretary-General’s calls for equitable access to vaccines.
Rich countries have accumulated vaccines. Sad as it is, Indonesia is certainly not the worst off; only 1.1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of immunization.
Is the epidemic in Indonesia at its peak or could things get worse?
It is an alarming situation. After India implemented a full national lockdown in response to the pandemic, it took about two weeks before it saw a reduction in cases.
Indonesia introduced strict travel restrictions in Java and Bali in early July, and has since extended those restrictions, but has yet to put in place any strict movement restrictions or lockdowns at the level. national, as have other countries in a similar situation. It is difficult to say when we will reach the peak, but the numbers continue to rise.
The Indonesian government has pledged to vaccinate one million people per day. It also converts 40% of non-COVID hospital beds to COVID beds. Among other interventions, the government will distribute medical support kits to some of the poorest people in the country, so those with milder symptoms do not have to go to the hospital.
These measures are all important. But experience in other countries shows that total restrictions on travel, vaccination, contact tracing / testing and treatment are the best ways to contain the virus.
How is the UN supporting Indonesia’s response to COVID-19?
On the health side, the UN provided technical and operational support. The UN puts a lot of emphasis on prevention, so we are helping to test the capacity, both in terms of equipment, protocols and training.
To date, we have facilitated the arrival of 16.2 million doses of vaccines via the COVAX installation and we are helping their distribution, because the logistics of the cold chain are complex on an archipelago of 17,000 islands.
We also put a lot of energy into communication, including health protocols and vaccines, and fighting misinformation and hoaxes.
Then there is the work we do to support those affected by COVID-19 beyond the realm of health. This involves ensuring that we also give advice on the economic implications of the pandemic.
Many United Nations agencies work with people who are among the poorest in Indonesia. For example, we have been working on the social protection package and an adaptive version for disaster response, which the government is proposing, including ensuring that people living in remote areas can access the program.
UN Women raised awareness that the economic and social burden of COVID-19 has fallen disproportionately on women, who manage about two-thirds of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) registered in Indonesia; as well as responding to the increase in gender-based violence that has corresponded to lockdowns in Indonesia and elsewhere in the world.
IOM and UNHCR are working with local governments to ensure that refugees are included in local immunization programs.
UNICEF supports national efforts to address the immediate and longer-term effects of COVID-19 on children, such as continued learning, support for social protection and responding to issues and vulnerabilities in child protection.
What lessons can we learn globally from what is happening in Indonesia?
Some issues may be contained within a country. But when it comes to viruses, they don’t recognize borders and don’t distinguish between rich and poor countries.
If we make a little cocoon in which we feel safe but outside that cocoon it is chaos, then we will not be safe for a long time.
To me, this pandemic demonstrates what environmentalists have been arguing for decades: what we do in one country impacts what happens in another because we share an ecosystem, a planet.
There is not a single environmentalist who has succeeded in convincing governments that we should reduce air travel. Yet COVID-19 has ground global aviation to the ground!
The pandemic has forced us to work together, limit ourselves and change the way we live in ways that were unthinkable until recently. But with regard to vaccines, if the COVAX installation has worked well, global solidarity has sometimes been lacking. I think that’s one of the reasons we see a situation like Indonesia’s.
It sounds like a UN cliché to say that we are all in the same boat. But it’s so obvious with COVID-19. The pandemic has taught us that it is possible to make unprecedented changes in the way we live. The question is: are we going to implement the lessons that we have paid a high price to learn?