The Delta variant has ripped through Southeast Asia in recent weeks, undoing many countries’ progress against the Covid-19 pandemic. Indonesia has been hit especially hard.
The spiraling crisis in Indonesia—and worsening situations in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, which are all experiencing their highest rate of case growth since the start of the pandemic—is a sad reminder that even as vaccines are rolled out in the United States and Europe, the Covid-19 pandemic has not abated elsewhere.
Already arguably the most impacted country in the region prior to the current wave, the rate of new cases in Indonesia has spiked to its worst level since the pandemic began, more than quadrupling in less than a month. But the devastation has gone beyond official case counts.
One in four people who take a Covid-19 test in Indonesia come back positive, and the percentage of deaths per positive case increased to 2.6 percent this week, the highest mortality rate by far in Southeast Asia. Taken together, these figures indicate that the limited supply of tests in Indonesia are going only to those most likely to test positive and that the reported numbers are therefore likely a vast undercount.
The seriousness of this crisis can be seen on the ground. Hospitals have been overwhelmed and many have been forced to set up emergency wards in outside tents. Dozens of people died over the weekend, reportedly due to a shortage of oxygen supplies.
Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan told reporters on July 6 that Indonesia had ordered 10,000 units of oxygen concentrator from Singapore and is currently in talks with China and other parties to acquire more. Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin added that the government was adding nearly 8,000 new beds within the Greater Jakarta area.
Indonesia’s finance minister on July 2 announced that the government would increase spending by $8.7 billion on social assistance and $12.8 billion on healthcare in response to the spike in Covid-19 cases, as well as to soften the expected blow to the economy associated with tougher restrictions implemented on July 2. These restrictions constitute the closest Indonesia has come to implementing a full nationwide lockdown.
Measures include: requiring proof of vaccination and a recent negative Covid-19 test for inter-city and inter-provincial travel; mandating all non-essential employees to work from home; limiting dine-in operating hours and capacity; and closing parks, malls, and other public spaces, including houses of worship. But even with the flurry of fiscal and public health measures, Indonesia is hurtling toward catastrophe without swift global assistance.
The United States is in a position to help, either bilaterally, through global initiatives like the COVAX vaccine sharing scheme, or through multilateral cooperation frameworks like the Quad. And at the regional level, it has made some limited progress in recent weeks. On July 5, the United States delivered 1 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Malaysia. On July 6, it sent Vietnam 2 million doses of the Moderna vaccine through the COVAX program. And Philippine officials expect to receive 3 million Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses from the United States through COVAX before the end of July.
Fellow Quad members Australia and Japan have also stepped up their assistance to Southeast Asia. Japan on July 1 sent 1 million doses of AstraZeneca to Indonesia with a commitment to deliver 1 million more before the end of the month. Tokyo this week also promised the Philippines over $100 million in aid to improve the country’s cold chain vaccine storage system.
Canberra announced on July 7 that it will rush a donation to Indonesia of 2.5 million AstraZeneca vaccines from Australia’s domestic stockpile along with 1,000 ventilators and critical medical equipment. Australia also committed to donate up to 15 million vaccines to Timor-Leste, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea by mid-2022.
Although Indonesia was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to start distributing vaccines, the percentage of fully vaccinated individuals remains just above 5 percent. All other countries in the region save Singapore and Cambodia have yet to reach the double digits. As the Delta variant—which may be more transmissible than previous strains of Covid-19—becomes dominant in the United States and globally, it is imperative that Washington and its partners redouble efforts to boost vaccine access in Southeast Asia and around the world to prevent the spread of new variants to come.
For more updates on the region’s ongoing struggle with the pandemic, visit our online Tracker.