Marchio Irfan Gorbiano, Jakarta – Health protocols have been more strictly enforced on the grounds of the Presidential Palace, including for state guests and embedded journalists, following repeated incidents of COVID-19 infection in close proximity to President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.
Presidential Secretariat head Heru Budi Hartono said that his office would take no chances in order to minimize the risk of transmission, as guests of the President are now obliged to undergo multiple COVID-19 tests.
"Whoever will meet the President in person will need to undergo a swab test [prior to the meeting] and a rapid test on the day, even though they have already been tested," Heru said in a recent statement to the press.
He also gave an assurance that physical distancing measures, proper face cover with masks and handwashing protocols were also being very strictly enforced.
The secretariat saw the shift in protocol after it emerged that two regional leaders were confirmed to have contracted the disease just days after meeting with Jokowi.
Riau Islands Governor Isdianto tested positive with COVID-19 four days after attending a swearing-in ceremony at the State Palace on July 27, while Surakarta Deputy Mayor Achmad Purnomo was tested on July 18. His results came back positive on July 23 – a week after meeting the President on July 16.
Jokowi himself took a swab test the same day and Achmad revealed to the press that he was infected with the disease, and palace officials were quick to dismiss any more speculation that the President may be infected as well.
Prior to the two cases, palace officials had announced that Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi had contracted the coronavirus on March 14. He was eventually discharged from Gatot Subroto Army Hospital (RSPAD) in Central Jakarta on April 15.
The recent cases that occurred so close to the nation's leader should serve as a wake-up call for officials working in the palace complex, said Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia.
"There should be a protocol for state activities during the pandemic era," Pandu told The Jakarta Post on Thursday. "The regulations should be reviewed and better testing tools should be used if they are available."
He said that consistency was key in implementing strict protocols, stressing that any gesture of compliance by Jokowi would play a significant role in ensuring that the message would get across to the general public.
"Everyone – without exception – should wear masks, particularly in certain situations such as state ceremonial events. In any kind of event, the President should lead by example by wearing masks correctly and consistently," said Pandu.
Jokowi and some of his ministers have drawn criticism after a photo of a Cabinet meeting held on Aug. 3 showed the President without a mask as he led the briefing with his Cabinet members.
Heru argued that the President and his ministers had fulfilled the necessary protocols and that they were "putting the masks on and off" during that meeting because it would often muffle their voices when speaking.
Acrylic partitions were also installed on the table separating Jokowi and his ministers in order to minimize the risk of transmission, Heru added.
COVID-19 transmissions have shown little signs of easing in Indonesia. On Thursday, the Health Ministry announced 2,098 new confirmed cases, bringing nationwide case numbers to 132,816. As many as 5,968 people have succumbed to the disease as of Thursday, the data revealed, with 887,558 people having recovered from the virus.
The stricter health protocols also apply to members of the press that report from the Presidential Palace complex. Journalists now need to show proof of having undergone rapid tests in the last two weeks when they visit the palace.
Meanwhile, those who are embedded in the presidential entourage for Jokowi's official trips will get a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test from the secretariat.
"Due to the high [rate] of COVID-19 transmissions, we are more thorough in [implementing health protocols]. But access for news gathering will not be reduced as there are technologies that can be used [to compensate for it]," said Bey Machmudin, deputy head for protocol, press and media at the Presidential Secretariat.
Separately, the chairman of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Abdul Manan, said it was understandable that media access to the President was slightly restricted during the current pandemic.
He said, however, that officials should instead hold regular press briefings to ensure that information can still be relayed to the public.