JAKARTA: The Indonesian government is paying close attention to several provinces that have reported a significant increase in COVID-19 cases recently, including Riau Islands and North Kalimantan where there has been more imported cases from Malaysia, said Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin.
In an exclusive interview with CNA on Wednesday (Jun 2), the minister said that the government is not only monitoring the COVID-19 confirmed daily cases nationally, but also the increase in cases at the provincial and even city level.
Mr Sadikin explained that all 34 provinces are categorised into four levels, with level 1 being the safest and level 4 showing the highest levels of transmission.
The levels are determined by World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines that 50 confirmed cases daily per 100,000 people would be considered level 4, he claimed.
“So we monitor which provinces are actually at level 4, which we don’t have. But we have provinces at level 3. And three (of these) provinces are not big provinces, they are Riau, Riau Islands and Bangka Belitung Islands.
“Riau Islands is high because this is where we receive a lot of migrant Indonesian workers coming from Malaysia. In Kalimantan, the province that we have to take care of is North Kalimantan."
Although the province adjacent to the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak is currently categorised as level two, the government’s data shows that many of the cases are imported, he said.
“They are coming from abroad ... We know that our position is actually better than our neighbours. But of course, we have to strengthen the (enforcement of) quarantine on (travellers from) the neighbouring countries and especially if it is by land or by sea."
The minister added: "If it is by air, it is easier to control. But if it is by land and by sea, then we have a lot of entry points. And many people are coming back or being pushed back to Indonesia. We realised that is the source of transmission, international travel.”
Indonesia currently imposes a five-day quarantine for people arriving from abroad and will not change it for the time being, he said, adding that this is in line with the guideline given by the WHO.
But authorities have taken precautionary measures by lengthening the quarantine time to 14 days for travellers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
SPIKE IN CASES AFTER IDUL FITRI EXPECTED TO PEAK BY END JUNE
The government is also taking precautions and anticipating an increase in COVID-19 cases following last month’s Idul Fitri holidays.
Even though it has banned the annual exodus of people to their hometowns for Idul Fitri, there were still many who were believed to have contravened the restrictions.
Since previous holidays led to a significant spike of more than 60 per cent, Mr Sadikin noted, the government is preparing for the spike this time by adding up to 72,000 isolation beds, about 20,000 of which were already occupied before the holiday.
There are also currently 7,500 ICU beds, of which around 2,000 were occupied before Idul Fitri.
The minister said the government has also prepared the health workers who have been vaccinated, unlike during the previous Christmas and New Year holidays, as the vaccination programme only kicked off in January. Medicines have also been stocked up.
“So far, we identified there is an increase around 20 per cent (bed occupancy) until now from Idul Fitri. And we will see this increase until the end of this month. But as long as it’s under the capacity of our health system, it should be okay.”
Based on previous holidays, especially Christmas and New Year, the number of COVID-19 cases will continue to climb five to seven weeks after the vacation period, said the health minister.
Back then, the daily cases climbed to around 13,000 new daily cases while breaking a record of 14,518 new infections at the end of January.
Although unable to say whether a similar scenario will materialise again this time, the health minister noted that the current figure for new daily cases is around 5,000.
“A few days ago, it reached 6,000 cases per day. But it is still below the 13,000 although it doesn’t mean we are not careful," he said.
"We are really, really careful. That’s why we monitor it on a day-to-day basis, especially after what we’ve seen in our neighbouring country. They got hit pretty badly. So being careful and more anticipative is the best way to move forward."
He said that there have been several areas where cases are increasing. In these instances, the government has opted to impose smaller scale lockdowns. “So there would be no major country or province level lockdown. But we will do it in a controlled manner.”
Indonesia has yet to impose a strict national-level lockdown. The government initially opted for large-scale social restrictions (PSBB) at the provincial and city level.
PSBB curbs were later relaxed and the community-level public activity restrictions enforcement (PPKM) was introduced. The latter is currently enforced in all provinces until at least Jun 14.
As of Thursday, Indonesia has reported more than 1.8 million COVID-19 cases and more than 50,000 deaths.
CONTAINING VARIANTS OF CONCERN, RAMPING UP VACCINATION
Variants of concern including those defined as the Alpha, Beta and Delta have been identified in Indonesia, said Mr Sadikin. These variants first originated from the United Kingdom, South Africa and India respectively.
He added that there have been 35 cases with a history of overseas travel, while 19 people did not have any travel history.
When asked if a hybrid strain that was first detected in Vietnam has been found in Indonesia, the minister said: "We stick to scientific data. So we only monitor the variants of concern that were determined by the WHO."
"If it is only isolated in that area, it is not spreading very fast, WHO will not count this as a variant of interest, or a variant of concern.”
To ensure that these variants of concern will not spread throughout the archipelago, the government is focused on ensuring that people follow health protocols, while ramping up vaccination, he said.
However, the speed of vaccination depends on the number of doses at Indonesia's disposal, said Mr Sadikin who prior to his appointment in late December last year was the deputy minister of state-owned enterprises.
As of Thursday, about 17 million people have received their first jabs, and about 10.9 million people have received their second jabs.
Indonesia is targeting to inoculate 181.5 million people of its 270 million population by early next year.
Mr Sadikin said the government is trying to hit 600,000 to 650,000 vaccinations per day this month, from 500,000 in May.
However, this depends on the availability of vaccines. So far, Indonesia has secured 91.9 million doses. They are mostly Sinovac followed by AstraZeneca and Sinopharm.
READ: Commentary: Indonesia’s company-funded vaccination drive boosts the national rate but has limitations
Mr Sadikin said that the lack of vaccines globally is worrying.
“Everybody is scrambling, trying to get more vaccines. While some countries have already secured vaccines for two or three times, even four times of their population, others don’t have access to vaccines.
“If you have more doses of vaccines, my plea to other big countries: Donate them to other countries which don’t have access. It is ethically right and scientifically right too.”