James Massola and Karuni Rompies – Indonesian epidemiologists have warned the national government is too focused on pursuing a vaccine to defeat COVID-19 and is neglecting the public health system, while tougher enforcement of mask-wearing and better contact tracing is also needed.
Joko Widodo and his cabinet ministers frequently talk up the prospect of a vaccine, with the President recently suggesting the country hoped to roll out the domestically produced merah putih (red and white, the colours of the Indonesian flag) by mid-2021.
Indonesia's state-owned Bio Farma has also struck a deal with China's Sinovac Biotech to supply a vaccine to Indonesia, with stage three trials beginning on 1600 volunteers in Indonesia.
Co-ordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto said after cabinet on Monday the government would launch fresh campaigns to promote mask wearing and hand washing before claiming BioFarma-Sinovac could supply 290 million doses of the vaccine.
The race for a vaccine comes as Indonesia rapidly approaches 200,000 coronavirus infections, with another 3444 new cases reported on Sunday – the fifth consecutive day of more than 3000 cases – up from averages in the low-to-mid 2000s. The death toll is 8025 people, the highest in south-east Asia.
The spread of the disease is accelerating, particularly in the capital-province of Jakarta, and in the most densely populated provinces of West, Central and East Java, and testing rates remain low – averaging between about 12,000 to 20,000 people per day in a country of about 270 million.
Dicky Budiman, a medical doctor currently writing a PhD on pandemics at Queensland's Griffith University and Dr Pandu Riono, a University of Indonesia epidemiologist, sounded the alarm about the government strategy as case numbers rise.
Dicky said that with low testing rates, the government was "far behind the speed of the spread and far from controlling the pandemic, especially for Java Island [home to about 140 million people] with more than 50 per cent of Indonesia's population".
Asked if the national government's pandemic strategy – which has seen only a partial lockdown followed by a re-opening of parts of the economy – was overly focused on securing a vaccine, he said "yes".
"It is a risk. As you know, the history of every pandemic is that there is no pandemic ended by a vaccine". "A vaccine is not the magic solution for every pandemic, especially with COVID-19's characteristics."
Pandu said that in the long run a vaccine would be helpful to stop the pandemic but "in the short term we have to deal with strengthening the public health system, with [virus] surveillance, with the behaviour of people".
"They are neglecting the public health situation."
Pandu said the government needed to more strictly enforce mask-wearing and social distancing.
Trubus Rahadiansyah, a public policy expert from Trisakti University, said he did not expect the outbreak in Indonesia to be contained any time soon based on the current policy setting.
"I don't see it will happen in the short-term, medium-term or even in the long-term. I think the government's policy has shifted from health to the economy."
Professor Wiku Adisasmito, the chair of the National Taskforce for the Acceleration of COVID-19 Mitigation, recently admitted Indonesia had fallen short of the World Health Organisation minimum targets.
"The testing amount [in Indonesia] has not met the WHO standard. Indonesia must at least do 267,000 people tested per week. In fact the highest number we have achieved is 95,000."
The number of doctors who have died from COVID-19 in Indonesia recently passed 100.