© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Gravediggers in personal protective equipment (PPE) bury a coffin in a burial area provided by the government for victims of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), as cases rise in Jayapura, Papua, Indonesia, July 20, 2021, taken in this photo by
By Kate Lamb
(Reuters) – Indonesia is suffering from a devastating wave of coronavirus infections, fueled by the Delta variant, but the government is already talking about relaxing social restrictions enacted earlier this month, a move that analysts say is largely led measured by economic considerations.
The impact of the outbreak has been brutal in Indonesia, with stories of people desperately trying to find hospital beds, oxygen and medicine for their loved ones. The death toll from COVID-19 in the country has broken records four times this week, the latest on Friday with 1,566 deaths.
However, just over a week after Indonesia recorded its highest number of daily infections, President Joko Widodo noted that current restrictions could be eased starting next week if cases begin to decline.
WHAT DO THE HEALTH EXPERTS SAY?
Relaxing restrictions is likely premature and potentially dangerous, some public health experts say. While cases have declined, from more than 56,000 in mid-July to 49,000 on July 23, epidemiologists say testing rates also declined in the same period, making it difficult to determine if there has been an actual decline.
Even if cases are flattening out, relaxing sidewalks is not advisable given hospital occupancy and death rates remain high, they say.
Indonesia’s death rate is currently three times higher than the world average, according to Our World in Data, while nearly 2,500 people have died in isolation or outside hospitals since June, said the independent data initiative, Lapor COVID- 19.
WHAT FACTORS DO THE AUTHORITIES SAY THEY ARE WATCHING?
Social restrictions in place since July 3, such as working from home and shopping centers closed, are currently limited to the islands of Java and Bali and other designated ‘red zones’ across the country.
Chief Minister Luhut Pandjaitan has said these could be alleviated on Monday if cases continue to decline and other indicators improve. He also said that the “sociological condition of the people” would be taken into account in the decision.
Concerns over the livelihoods of the poor and a series of small protests in the past week have raised fears about the risk of social unrest, analysts and government sources say.
With 60% of the workforce in the informal sector, experts say the protests are a manifestation of frustration, not necessarily because of the restrictions, but because of how difficult it has become to survive.
WILL VACCINES PROVIDE A WAY OUT OF THE CRISIS?
The government is counting on vaccines, provided in large part by China’s Sinovac, to help reduce the impact of the pandemic.
While Indonesia worked hard to start an early vaccination program, logistical hurdles, limited supplies, and vaccinating vaccines have held back targets: so far, only 6% of the population is fully vaccinated.
Promises of hitting 400,000 tests per day and boosting contact tracing have also fallen short, with the positivity rate averaging 28.7% last week.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL RISKS IF INDONESIA RELAXES THE CURBS?
The government faces a tricky balancing act in formulating policies to protect both the economy and the health of 270 million people in the developing nation.
But as cases have risen and cemeteries have filled, the government has faced mounting criticism that it has prioritized the economy over people’s health.
On the contrary, the lack of reopening also carries economic risks.
Employer groups have warned of mass layoffs unless restrictions are relaxed next week, while credit rating agencies say the restrictions could challenge the government’s goal of reducing the fiscal deficit and undermine ratings.
The big question can come down to the right moment.
Public health experts warn that loosening restrictions too soon could mean that the additional support recently provided to health centers could be quickly undermined, while allowing the Delta variant to spread to remote regions even more ill-equipped to handle a health crisis.