Omicron outbreak in Indonesia surpasses record number of daily cases

A new record has been set for daily COVID-19 infections in Indonesia, with 64,718 cases confirmed on Wednesday last week. The Omicron variant, now the dominant strain in the archipelago nation, has fueled a precipitous rise in infection rates over the past five weeks, quickly surpassing the peak of last year’s catastrophic Delta wave.

After peaking at 56,757 cases last July, the Delta outbreak gradually eased until daily case counts remained below 200 in November and December. With the possible introduction and transmission of Omicron, which the Indonesian government openly refused to prevent, official cases began to climb in mid-January. The numbers jumped to hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands within days, in one case more than doubling after just one day.

A further 61,488 cases were recorded on Wednesday, bringing the total to 5.3 million infections, the highest in Southeast Asia and the 17th highest in the world.

UNICEF aid workers in Indonesia (Credit: UNICEF)

As Indonesia’s testing rate remains among the worst in the world (around 286,000 tests per million population), the official tally can only provide a limited picture of the spread of the disease. The capital Jakarta accounts for almost half of new cases, in part due to its relatively higher testing capacity compared to rural or remote areas. Other regions reporting many Omicron casualties include the provinces of West Java, Banten, East Java and Bali, although the infectious variant is believed to have already spread far beyond the main island. of Java.

Within a week of the start of the Omicron surge, nearly 20,000 hospital beds out of a nationwide capacity of 120,000 dedicated to managing COVID-19 had been filled. Occupancy rates at 140 coronavirus referral hospitals in Jakarta are currently 60%, down from just 5% in early January. Over 50% of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Bali were occupied on Monday.

The death toll is also climbing rapidly, rising to 257 on Tuesday from single figures three weeks ago. More than 100 people have died every day for the past two weeks, mostly in the capital.

The previous Delta surge last July made Indonesia the global epicenter of coronavirus deaths, peaking at more than 2,000 daily deaths. It was the result of a complete collapse of the country’s healthcare system. People seeking medical treatment in overcrowded hospitals in major cities and provinces were turned away at the gates, causing thousands to die at home without proper care. Government statistics were therefore a serious underestimate of the true cost of life.

Health workers were forced to erect plastic tents as makeshift intensive care units to keep up with the demand, but patients had to wait days before being admitted. Supplies of spare oxygen tanks quickly ran out as they were distributed to crowds of people outside hospitals in need of urgent treatment.

Faced with the prospect of a similar disaster, the national government continues to avoid containment measures and promotes a “COVID normal” policy.

On February 7, Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, the COVID-19 response coordinator in Java and Bali, finally announced minimal social restrictions to deal with the Omicron push. By then, daily cases had already skyrocketed from about 1,000 to 36,000 in three weeks. Moreover, viral transmission rates in Java and Bali had already passed the peaks of the Delta wave.

The restrictions include attendance caps of 50% on places of worship and 60% on supermarkets, shopping malls and restaurants, which will also see a reduction in opening hours. These measures are limited to Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta and Bali. Reviews are held weekly by a special committee to assess whether any restrictions can be relaxed.

However, government officials have admitted they expect an explosion of cases and deaths from Omicron in the coming weeks. Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin estimated that cases during this wave could reach 285,000 a day, five times the Delta’s peak, while deaths would not exceed 500, according to the Associated Press.

“Please don’t panic if you see that the number of cases is [sic] increases significantly,” he told an online briefing. “The most important thing is that the hospitalization and death rates are lower [than the Delta wave] and stay under control. He urged the government to adopt calm and trust that Omicron will not overburden the healthcare system due to its “softer” character.

The Indonesian ruling elite’s extreme reluctance to impose restraints on economic activity stems from its growing concern to regain profits as soon as possible.

He is particularly keen to revive tourism operations on which a substantial part of Indonesian business depends. Preparations are underway to lift all quarantine requirements for international travelers as early as April, with the aim of bringing visitors back to the resort island of Bali and other popular destinations.

In Bali, where a large-scale reopening is already underway, international flights resumed earlier this month, while the quarantine period was further shortened from seven to five days. Asked by the South China Morning PostNia Niscaya, marketing assistant at the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, described Bali’s reopening as a “sort of pilot program” or a trial of the government’s plan to “live with the virus”.

While the government is keen to follow other countries and move from “pandemic” to “endemic” status, only 51% of Indonesia’s 278 million people have been double-vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. The country’s exceptionally slow vaccination campaign began on January 13 last year. Despite the announcement in December that Indonesia would start vaccinating children, the campaign largely consisted of ineffective public calls to get vaccinated, undermined by spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and promoting quack remedies by politicians.

Medical studies have concluded that the highly mutated and potentially vaccine-resistant Omicron variant significantly reduces the effectiveness of Pfizer and Sinovac vaccines, the two most commonly distributed in Indonesia. The country only started rolling out its booster program in mid-January, days before the recent outbreak erupted.

Initially, the government proposed that Indonesians pay for their booster dose, a move that was reversed amid widespread outrage from scientists and the general public. Only 3.4% of the population received a booster, leaving the vast majority of Indonesians virtually unprotected from Omicron.

Additionally, vaccine distribution was largely concentrated in Jakarta and Bali, where almost the entire population received two doses. Regions like Aceh and West Papua, on the other hand, only managed to vaccinate 20% of residents, according to Health Ministry data.

As throughout the pandemic, epidemiologists are warning that the Indonesian government’s reckless pro-business actions will end in a public health crisis. Dr Dicky Budiman, from Australia’s Griffith University, expressed concern about the consequences of both low vaccination rates and the concentration of vaccines in certain areas.

“During the second wave led by Delta, 20% of patients were hospitalized, including 5% placed in intensive care units. For Omicron, 10% of patients are likely to be hospitalized, while the rest are likely to be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms,” Dr. Budiman said. “But 10% of Indonesians [in hospitals] is a lot. Due to a low patient-to-doctor ratio, even five percent of the population [being in hospital] could bring down our health care system.