James Massola – The Indonesian government is "betting the farm" on a successful COVID-19 vaccination campaign, says a former cabinet minister in Joko Widodo's government and key ally of Australia, warning that a vaccine roll-out may fail to match the speed of the disease's spread.
Tom Lembong, a Harvard-trained architect and investment banker before serving in Joko's cabinet, has taken the unusual step of publicly criticising the direction and strategy of the government.
Typically, Indonesian politics is less confrontational than Australia and its main players unwilling to publicly criticise allies.
The economic reformer, who vigorously advocated for the Indonesia-Australia free trade deal while Trade Minister, also expressed deep concern about the timing of changes to workplace laws which significantly reduce protections for minimum wages, severance pay, holiday leave, maternity benefits, health and child care.
The new so-called omnibus job creation bill, passed on October 5 but yet to come into effect, has sparked days of protest across Indonesia with hundreds arrested.
Lembong said there was a widespread belief in the scientific community that "Indonesia's official government data vastly under counts, understates [the number of infections]. We have the lowest testing rate of any major economy in the world".
Indonesia has now recorded 349,160 cases of coronavirus and 12,268 deaths, with daily infections of more than 4000 people for about a month and testing rates remaining stubbornly low – in the order of 25,000 to 35,000 people per day in a country of 270 million people.
The International Monetary Fund this week revised down its forecasts for economic growth in Indonesia, as a result of the pandemic, projecting south-east Asia's largest economy would contract by 1.5 per cent, rather than the 0.3 per cent forecast in June.
"To drive the vaccination so it catches up to the speed of the spread [of COVID-19] is going to be pretty much impossible, right?" he said.
"The government is effectively betting the farm on a successful COVID-19 vaccination campaign in 2021. Because infections are rising exponentially, it's looking mathematically almost impossible, to drive the vaccination campaign to a speed so it that catches up to the speed of the coronavirus's spread."
Indonesia's state-owned PT Bio Farma has struck a deal with China's Sinovac for 125 million doses of its vaccine candidate, while separate deals are in place for Sinopharm (50 million doses), CanSino (20 million doses) and Britain's AstraZeneca (100 million doses).
Lembong warned of potential complications in the roll out of the vaccination program. "In western countries or rich countries, semi-annual flu shots are common place. In Indonesia it's certainly not," he said.
"And the reason I bring that up is that like the flu shots, most of these COVID vaccines have to be stored at a temperature of plus 2 to plus 8 degrees Celsius... many have to be stored at minus 20 to minus 70 degrees Celsius, so the cold storage logistics around this vaccine are incredibly hard, especially for countries that don't have the infrastructure already in place for semi-annual, widespread flu shots – like Indonesia."
On the changes to workplace laws, Lembong said he would "defend to the end the modernising reforms, including labour market reforms, that are in the omnibus bill", as well as the move to open up more sectors of the economy to private sector investment, including international capital – a controversial decision in a country that still has strong protectionist urges.
"However, the timing of ratifying this omnibus law right now is extremely awkward at best."
Lembong expressed concern the omnibus law changes did little to tackle immediate burning problems, like delivering desperately-needed improvements to the health care sector, nor did it seem to be in line with strong current global trends in favour of protecting the environment or promoting green energy.
"Vietnam, around two years ago, started a solar power boom. I expect it would be simple for Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore to decarbonise quickly. China is the largest producer of everything from solar panels to windmills to lithium ion batteries, so they won't have any problem decarbonising."
"But Indonesia is only becoming more carbon intensive, as reflected in the omnibus law extending fiscal incentives and regulatory relief to the coal mining industry and to owner-operators of palm oil plantations."
"I worry about a near future in which exports from Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and China to the EU do not get hit by the EU's officially announced carbon tariffs and ours do."
President Joko has defended the omnibus law citing the "urgent need for jobs" with 2.9 million new job seekers entering the workforce every year, 6.9 million people unemployed in Indonesia and 3.5 million employees affected by COVID-19.
He has argued the bill simplifies the establishment of companies and that the bill will reduce corruption by reducing red tape.