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Plague or famine? Indonesia grapples with economic risks amid record infection rates

Sydney Morning Herald - May 13, 2020

James Massola and Karuni Rompies – Indonesia has recorded 689 new coronavirus cases, another single day record, as the country looks to be backing away from plans to reopen the economy from early June.

And as Australia's largest northern neighbour grapples with a growing case load and the risk of famine while locking down its economy to save lives, on Wednesday Thailand reported zero new cases of infection for the first time since March 9.

Indonesia's government, like many countries around the world, is trying to balance the need to enforce restrictions to slow the spread of the disease with the need to re-open the economy so people can earn enough to live on.

The slow down in economic activity has hit day workers in the informal economy hard, with millions of people losing their jobs.

In late April, government officials claimed the rate of infections was flattening but the number of infections – while dipping into the low hundreds some times – has been steadily rising.

The 689 cases on Wednesday takes the country's official tally to 15,438. There have also been 21 more deaths, taking that total to 1028. The country has recorded new daily highs of 484 and then 533 cases detected in a single day in the past week.

President Joko Widodo has complained about low testing rates, with just 53 of 104 laboratories designated to do PCR testing up and running and the number of tests processed each day hovering at around the 4000 to 5000 mark.

Though testing rates have improved, this daily total is still well below the 10,000 per day target the President has set, and well below several neighbouring countries.

On Wednesday, the Jakarta Post reported details of a plan authored by Raden Pardede, a special adviser to the Economic Minister, that would see grocery stores and shopping malls resume limited operation on Monday, June 8. Restaurants, cafes, bars, and gyms would start reopening in July, while public transport restrictions would be lifted after that.

But Raden told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age the government had not committed to this timeline and that the June timeline was based on predictions for the spread of infection contained in a Singapore University of Technology and Design paper.

"Economic policy will always be based on health conditions, on when the outbreak can be contained. I must admit, the outbreak poses a very difficult situation for the economy because we have many people making their living in the informal sector. These are people whose pay is only enough for a day. They don't have savings," he said.

"If we closed the economy for three months, how could they survive? It would also be very difficult for the government to give support for the long-term period. Our approach is how to survive the plague and how to avoid famine."

The government's timeline for a staged re-opening of the economy could now be July or August.

"If we close [businesses and the economy] for too long, nobody would die of the disease but we would die of famine. We have to survive both. Remember, viruses have been among us for ten thousand years so we have to live with it."

Epidemiologist Tri Yunis Miko Wahyono, from the University of Indonesia, said it was too early to ease social distancing restrictions because the number of new cases was still increasing.

"Now, the outbreak is still growing. This is shown by number of new cases increasing. The curve will flatten at the end June or July," he said, by his estimation.

"Reopening business and the economy earlier during a high number of new cases can produce high transmissions of COVID-19, then the flattening of the curve will be delayed."

In Thailand, the government has begun to ease restrictions but the public are still being urged to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

The country has had a total of 3017 cases and 56 deaths since the outbreak began in January, with 2844 patients having recovered.

Malaysia has seen a small rise in cases since easing restrictions on May 5, while Singapore reported just four cases of community infection on Tuesday.

However Singapore, which counts low-paid labourers who live in dormitories separately to the rest of the population, reported another 877 infections in that community – a trend that has continued for more than a month.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/plague-or-famine-indonesia-grapples-with-economic-risks-and-infection-rates-20200513-p54sjj.html