JAKARTA: In July, credit analyst Budi Wardiman went back to work in his office in Jakarta, after having worked from home for almost three months due to a partial lockdown that was imposed in the capital to break the chain of COVID-19 infection.
The first round of restrictions were put in place on Apr 10 and lifted in early June, as Jakarta saw a decrease in cases. Most businesses were allowed to reopen.
But about 10 days after Mr Wardiman, not his real name, and his colleagues went back to work in their office, two of his co-workers were tested positive for COVID-19.
All the staff at the bank where Mr Wardiman worked then had to undergo a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test. Five others also tested positive.
As of early September, a total of 18 people at the bank’s Jakarta branch have been tested positive, while 23 others who work at the bank’s branch in South Tangerang, on the outskirts of Jakarta, also have COVID-19.
Mr Wardiman said that they actually implemented some health protocols, like having safe distancing for seating and each cubicle getting a partition.
“But a flaw is that the air conditioner is still centralised and the rooms lack air circulation.
“We also suspect the elevator is a transmission medium,” Mr Wardiman told CNA.
Mr Wardiman's account is just one of the many instances in Jakarta and its surrounding satellite cities where workplaces have been the focus of COVID-19 clusters after the first round of restrictions were eased.
In Bekasi regency east of Jakarta, there have been at least five major known clusters of COVID-19 in industrial areas.
Cases have been detected in factories under major multinational corporations, including Unilever Indonesia, LG Electronics, and Hitachi. These clusters in Bekasi alone account for more than 500 COVID-19 cases.
READ: Six months after COVID-19 strikes Indonesia, questions linger over healthcare capacity and equipment
As the total number of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia crossed the 200,000 mark, Jakarta city governor Anies Bawedan announced on Wednesday (Sep 9) that large-scale social restrictions will be reimposed.
Why have workplaces been the focus of new COVID-19 clusters?
Experts say there are several reasons for this, including how businesses could have resumed operating prematurely back in June, as well as gatherings and meetings in workplaces.
EXPERT SAYS BUSINESSES REOPENED PREMATURELY
Mr Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist from the University of Indonesia believes that the businesses had reopened prematurely after the restrictions were eased.
“There was a decrease in COVID-19 cases, but there were still a lot of them,” Mr Riono told CNA.
“In other countries, they wait until there is only a handful of cases, then they open the businesses. Here, it happened when there were still hundreds (of new cases daily).”
He also said that some companies did not comply with health protocols with respect to allowing employees to resume work in the office.
“They did not want to invest in health,” he said, adding that some may not have taken things seriously because there is a lack of monitoring by the government.
Mr Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist with Griffith University in Brisbane added that resuming work in the office is not simply a matter of implementing health protocols. Things must start with the management screening the employees to know whether they are free of COVID-19.
It is also necessary to know the employees' health condition. Employees with a comorbid condition, for example, must work from home, he pointed out.
GATHERINGS, MEETINGS ANOTHER RISK FACTOR
Meanwhile, the spokesman of the national COVID-19 taskforce Wiku Adisasmito said that activities that required people to meet in groups could have contributed to the transmission of the disease.
“That’s why when you hold meetings or work from the office, it is advised not to stay in a closed room for too long,” he said during a press conference last month.
Prof Adisasmito also suggested that the clusters could have been formed at the employees’ neighbourhoods or they could have been infected while they were commuting to work.
“Actually employees have homes, so of course there are clusters in the settlements and they can catch it (COVID-19) at their neighbourhood or at home or on the way to the office.”
On Tuesday, the government decided to take extra precautions to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in workplaces.
Prof Adisasmito said that civil servants who work in green zones can all work from the office, and only a maximum of 75 per cent of workers in yellow zones can work from the office.
In addition, in government institutions, only half of the employees in orange zones can go to work and only 25 per cent of employees can work from the office in red zones.
Red zones are defined by the government as areas where there are a lot of COVID-19 cases and deemed dangerous. Orange zones and yellow zones are places with not that many COVID-19 cases, while green zones are places believed to be safe as they have reported little COVID-19 cases.
“The clusters which happen at workplaces could have happened during lunchtime or while performing prayers, that is why one must keep a distance from one another and only take off your masks when eating lunch,” Prof Adisasmito stated.
As of Thursday, there were more than 207,000 COVID-19 cases and 8,456 deaths in Indonesia, one of the highest in Southeast Asia.
LOOKING AHEAD: BETTER STRATEGY NEEDED
Starting next Monday, Jakarta will return to large-scale social restrictions amid a continuous increase in the number of daily infections and an increase in hospitals' bed occupancy rate.
Citizens will be required to work from home, study from home and conduct activities of worship from home. Only 11 essential business may operate from their premises.
Mr Riono cautioned that the restrictions must not be violated, unlike the previous round where there were anecdotal accounts of people flouting the rules.
He also asserted that better strategies are needed to contain the spread of COVID-19 in industrial zones.
To make enforcement more effective, there is a need for closer coordination between the central government and municipal authorities, he said.
He also emphasised that public education should be improved, as some believe that they cannot catch COVID-19.
Going a step further, Mr Budiman said just education is not enough.
He said that employers who demand their staff to work from the office should regularly test them for COVID-19.
They should also implement other measures apart from the standard health protocols known in Indonesia – wearing a mask, safe distancing and washing one's hands regularly.
For instance, there should be guards to ensure that there are not too many people in the lavatory at the same time, he said.
Companies that are still allowed to operate should make sure that they have the best ventilation such as using air conditioners with High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestance (HEPA) air filters or replacing systems that are activated by fingerprints.
Within the broader community, what is needed is a more aggressive testing and tracing approach, something Indonesia is lagging far behind compared to other developing countries, Mr Budiman added.
In the meantime, Mr Wardiman, the credit analyst does not have many options rather than to continue to work from his office, as banks are categorised as essential services.
“I am actually afraid, but there is nothing I can do other than trying to implement strict health protocols like always bringing extra clothes to change at the office and carrying a hand sanitiser to disinfect things.
“I hope this COVID-19 pandemic will soon end and everyone is disciplined in complying with health protocols because I see a lot of people in public transport who do not wear their masks properly or stand too near to each other.”