Max Walden – The Indonesian government has vowed "strict punishment" for several staff members of a state-owned pharmaceutical company accused of reusing cotton swabs for COVID-19 tests at a busy international airport.
At least five people employed by Kimia Farma Diagnostika are accused of washing and reusing nasal swabs for thousands of coronavirus tests since December 2020.
They were employed to conduct rapid antigen tests for passengers at Kualanamu airport in the city of Medan, but police estimated they reused swabs from 150 kits up to 20,000 times.
The company said last week it had dismissed the workers allegedly involved and would fully support a police investigation.
"I strongly condemn the actions of unscrupulous Kimia Farma officers," Indonesia's state-owned enterprises Minister Erick Thohir said on Twitter. "Such action must be subject to very strict punishment."
Kimia Farma Diagnostika's director Adil Fadhilah Bulqini condemned the workers in a statement and said that reusing swabs was against the company's standard operating procedures.
A North Sumatra police spokesman said the group was suspected of siphoning 1.8 billion Indonesian rupiah ($160,500) through the practice of charging people for tainted tests.
If prosecuted, the suspects could face up to 10 years in prison, the spokesman said.
Tonang Dwi Ardyanto, a pathology expert from Sebelas Maret University, said the reuse of swab tests could have posed a number of health risks to passengers.
"After opening and using it, the swab tool is actually no longer suitable for use," he said. "So [the risk is from] not only COVID, but also bacteria, viruses and other pathogens."
Irma Hidayana, a public health consultant, said the scandal was unsurprising given inadequate oversight of testing from the central and local governments in Indonesia.
Authorities have previously detected the sale of falsified letters showing that a person was negative for COVID-19 in order to allow them to travel.
"There is no close monitoring of the antigen testing on the ground," Dr Hidayana said, adding there was a lack of political will to implement stringent measures to stop the spread of the virus.
Ongoing problems in Indonesia's COVID response
Elina Ciptadi, cofounder of the KawalCovid19.id website, which independently collates data on the pandemic, told the ABC that the problem in Indonesia was that coronavirus-related regulations had been poorly enforced.
"We see not just the case with Kimia Farma, but people evading quarantine upon arrival," she said, adding sometimes people were testing positive for coronavirus but then seeking an alternative test that would provide a negative result.
"So instead of going straight into isolation... they still manage to get onto a plane before going to a doctor."
Indonesia has recorded the largest number of coronavirus cases in South-East Asia, with almost 1.7 million infections and more than 46,000 deaths officially recorded.
Experts say the true numbers of COVID cases and deaths in Indonesia are likely much higher.
Ms Ciptadi said that in Indonesia there were only 40,000-50,000 tests being conducted each day, compared with about one million in India.
Indonesia's coronavirus testing regime has long been criticised as inadequate. Tests are only free for citizens if they are close contacts of a confirmed case.
"It doesn't need to be nearly as bad as India in terms of the number of cases for the system in Indonesia to be overwhelmed," Ms Ciptadi told the ABC.
"If we remember the peak back in January... people [were getting] turned back from dozens of hospitals in and around Jakarta.
"It doesn't need to get to hundreds of thousands of cases a day before we start seeing what we are seeing in parts of India right now."
Fears of an Eid surge in cases
The Indonesian Health Ministry this week reported two cases of the infectious Indian coronavirus variant known as B.1.617. The South African variant has been detected in Bali.
There are concerns Indonesia could see a surge in cases in the coming weeks as people travel to their hometowns to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr.
"We should learn not only from India, but from last year when we had [Eid al-Fitr]. The trend, it shows the cases increased," Dr Hidayana said.
The chairman of Indonesia's COVID-19 task force, Doni Monardo, has called upon citizens to stay home this Eid al-Fitr.
"Those of you who have documents saying that you are negative for COVID-19, it doesn't mean you'll be negative forever. You could become infected on the way [to your destination]," he said at a press conference.
The Indonesian Health Ministry has said that group Iftar dinners, which mark the breaking of the fast, and nightly congregational prayers have caused coronavirus clusters during Ramadan.
The ABC has approached the Indonesian health ministry for comment.
"I don't think our country learned from last year," Dr Hidayana said. "There is no firm policy restricting people from moving from one place to another. There are no sanctions at all."