Playing catch up

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James Van Zorge
James Van Zorge, Is a Business consultant in Indonesia that has worked for the Harvard Institute for International Development, Food and Agriculture Organization, McKinsey & Co., and A.T.Kearney’s Global Business Policy Institute. He completed his BA in International Relations, summacum laude, at the State University of New York at Albany, and he holds a Masters of Public Policy, International Economics, from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

IO – As the Jokowi administration continues its rollout for unvaccinated adults and children, it is clear that Indonesia is far behind its peers within ASEAN. Only 42% of the Indonesian population is fully vaccinated, where in Thailand 65% and in Malaysia 78% of the population are fully vaccinated.

For sure, Indonesia’s vast size and geography makes the logitics of distributing and administering vaccines a much more difficult undertaking in comparison with other countries. This is especially true for the eastern reaches of the Indonesian archipelago which have some challenging topography (for example, in places such as Papua and Kalimantan) and where there is a predominantly rural population that suffers from a lack of access to decent public health facilities. It is not only a matter of sending vaccines to cold storage units in the cities, it is more a question of how to get the vaccines to people living afar in the villages.

The so-called ‘last mile’, or the last point from which stored vaccines need to be sent to people living in the countryside is a main constraint not only in Indonesia but also underdeveloped parts of the world, such as in Africa, where only 9 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.

Still, the Jokowi administration should not be lulled into believing it has done a decent job in managing the pandemic. More resources should be poured into the vaccination drive to expedite the administration of two innoculations for at least three quarters of the population, irrespective of where they live. The government also needs to be more aware of its shortcomings in delivering social assistance during the pandemic and find better ways to ensure needy Indonesians actually are receiving the help they have been promised.

One way of looking at the scope of the problem is to compare Indonesian to other nations. For example, according to Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking, the governments of Chile, Ireland and the U.A E were the top performers out of the 53 countries in the survey. These countries proved that, with good leadership, it is possible to reach high vaccination rates and consequently look forward to an economic rebound.

Then there are the laggards–at the very bottom of the Bloomberg survey were Indonesia, South Africa followed by Vietnam coming in last.

Although the Indonesian government has undeniably started to perform better after last year’s outbreak of the Delta variant, it is still playing catchup after a horribly botched start. When the pandemic first broke out, cabinet ministers in the Jokowi administration seemed to follow Donald Trump’s lead by making ludicrous and unsubstantiated claims about the virus and the actual risks it posed. Vaccination rollouts were ludicrously slow, and it wasn’t until the Delta variant caused a surge in cases did the government begin to pick up the pace of innoculations.

Now we have the Omicron variant, which is bound to infect increasingly larger numbers of Indonesians over the coming weeks and place a strain on the public health system. While it is true the new variant is not as deadly as the Delta variant, its high rate of transmission and ability to sicken unvaccinated people means many Indonesians will be at risk.

Yet, there is time for the government to increase the rate of vaccinations more quickly and avoid a potentially devastating health crisis in the future. Epidemiologists are warning us that although the Omicron variant is not as deadly as Delta, there is a good chance new variants in the future could evolve that would possess the high transmission rates of Omicron and the lethality of Delta, perhaps even worse.

Such warnings are not alarmist and should be taken seriously. Viruses thrive and mutate in unvaccinated people, and with only a little more than half of the world being fully vaccinated, on average much less in underdeveloped countries, COVID-19 is still a grave threat. The Indonesian government needs to recognize the potential for a killer variant to appear at any given time and therefore pick up the pace before it ends up becoming a case of doing too little too late.