ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Indonesia Passes Grim COVID-19 Milestone

The country exceeded 500,000 cases right as international researchers were moving closer to an effective vaccine.

Indonesia Passes Grim COVID-19 Milestone

Traders express their thanks to health workers after receiving nasal swab tests at Jakarta’s Karang Anyar Traditional Market, on June 25, 2020.

Credit: Flickr/IAPB/VISION 2020

Indonesia has notched an unfortunate coronavirus milestone, blowing past half a million positive confirmed cases, the most in Southeast Asia by a considerable margin. On November 23, Indonesia’s Ministry of Health announced 4,442 new daily infections, bringing the country’s total to 502,110, spread across all of the country’s 34 provinces. The ministry also reported 118 deaths, taking the country’s total to 16,002.

The milestone comes as international researchers announce that they are close to formulating an effective COVID-19 vaccine, raising the possibility that the end of the pandemic is in sight.

It comes not a moment too soon for the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, which has come under fire for its COVID-19 response since the beginning of the pandemic.

The government hasn’t been helped by the fact that the island of Java is the most densely populated island in the world, with a population of 141 million crammed into a territory roughly the size of Nicaragua. But in the early stages of the pandemic, the government downplayed the threat of the contagion so as not to “stir panic,” as Jokowi put it in March, while senior members of Jokowi’s cabinet proffered a range of quack cures for COVID-19, ranging from herbal mangosteen juice and eucalyptus necklaces to prayer.

The authorities also conducted minimal contact tracing and resisted instituting lockdowns until infections had spiraled out of control. Meanwhile, the nation of 270 million has tested a smaller share of its population than any other major economy, leading many public health experts to conclude that official figures significantly underestimate the true spread of the disease.

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Having largely failed to contain the pandemic in a manner similar to its regional peers Thailand or Vietnam, Jokowi’s government has instead heaped its chips on securing access to an effective vaccine.

Jokowi said at a cabinet meeting this week that his administration was preparing mass vaccinations and urged his ministers to ensure the seamless distribution of vaccines throughout the Indonesian islands.

Indonesia’s State-Owned Enterprises Ministry has formulated plans to vaccinate 107 million people between the ages of 18 and 59, or about 67 percent of the population in the age group, by the end of next year. Older people will be vaccinated once the doses are proven safe.

In securing access to a vaccine, the Indonesian government has pursued all bilateral and multilateral channels. In August, Indonesia signed a deal with China’s Sinovac Biotech giving it secure access to 50 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine that would be produced locally in conjunction with Indonesia’s state-owned PT Bio Farma. The Sinovac vaccine candidate is currently undergoing phase 3 clinical trials in Bandung. The government has also explored partnerships with two other Chinese drug manufacturers, Sinopharm and CanSino Biologics, and is likely to benefit from an Australian government COVID-19 vaccine aid pledge.

Most promisingly, Indonesia last month penned an agreement with the pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca to supply the country with 100 million coronavirus vaccines in 2021.

This week, AstraZeneca, which is partnering with researchers at Oxford University, announced that its jointly-developed COVID-19 vaccine has shown “an average efficacy of 70 percent” in trials. While this is lower than lower compared with the efficacy of coronavirus vaccines trialed by rivals Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna which have come in above 90 percent, the latter are required to be stored at super-cold temperatures that would complicate their distribution throughout the Indonesian archipelago.

In this sense, at least, it seems like Indonesia might have bet on the right greyhound. But the vaccine announcements carry a small but significant risk: that as a vaccine looms on the horizon, governments will relax lockdown restrictions and public health measures in an all-out bolt to the finish line.

Much now depends on the speed of how fast vaccine companies can ramp up production and distribution. Indonesia’s government will be hoping that it happens quickly.