Religious Fervor And Misinformation Turned Indonesia Into Asia's COVID19 Epicenter
Indonesia is now the epicenter of COVID19 in Asia. It is the world's fourth-most populous country and home to about 270 million people. The country has been reporting thousands of daily cases and hundreds of deaths as the highly contagious Delta variant ravages the country. At least 2.7 million people are infected and more than 70,000 dead, experts warn the country may not have reached its peak.
There is a flood of posts on social media from users who have been affected by the virus. Medical supplies are running low at hospitals, excavators are digging burial plots frantically, and isolating remains has become impossible for millions. In addition, there is widespread, rampant misinformation in the country as well as a low vaccination rate under 6%.
Indonesia's #COVID19 surge has been so extreme that volunteers are recovering dead bodies from people's homes as hospitals turn patients away.
How did this happen
In 2020, Indonesia kept the COVID19 outbreak mostly under control. In June, as the number of cases grew, hospitals in Indonesia were crowded to the brink, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned Indonesia was "on the edge of a Covid-19 catastrophe.".
Indonesia's Health Minister, Budi Gunadi Sadikin, said the country had seen a "dramatic increase in confirmed cases" after the festive holidays. The rapid increase in cases is being attributed to the fast-spreading Delta variant, which was discovered in India and has since spread to almost 100 countries.
An important Muslim holiday took place across Indonesia on May 13. Eid al-Fitr is the end of Ramadan and a time when families gather, pray together and share meals. The Eid al-Fitr of 2021 was meant to be small. Prior to the holiday, Indonesian authorities prohibited residents from traveling internally for "mudik", an event usually involving 20 million people, to prevent the spread of COVID19. In an effort to eliminate unnecessary travel, roadblocks were placed, toll roads blocked, and checkpoints were set up starting May 6.
In spite of the ban, clandestine routes known as "jalan tikus" (rat runs) increased as people flouted the restrictions and travelled anyway.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo addressed the nation and reported that 1.5 million people were thought to have ignored the ban and travelled anyway. Medical experts warned of a spike in COVID19 cases across Indonesia due to the exodus, and worrying figures began surfacing almost immediately. In a statement on May 10, Indonesia's Coordinating Minister of Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto said that 6,742 people had been randomly screened at mudik checkpoints across the country since the ban began, of whom 4,123 tested positive for COVID19.
The government ordered Indonesia into a lockdown on July 10, by which point the country was reporting more than 30,000 new cases each day. By July 15, that figure had surged to 56,000 cases in a single day. According to the government, "all resources" are being mobilized to deal with the Covid19 surge, including bringing in oxygen from other countries to increase the supply.
According to Experts, Indonesians are now bearing the consequences of failing to lock down early enough and ignoring COVID19 warnings.
The current numbers of reported infections and deaths are more than likely higher. According to a survey published last week, more than half of Jakarta's residents may have contracted Covid19 more than 12 times the number of cases officially recorded in the Indonesian capital at the time the study was conducted. Indonesia has one of the highest test positivity rates in the world, with more than 27% of tests coming back positive, according to Johns Hopkins University figures.
According to the WHO's most recent report, "Without appropriate testing, many provinces are unable to isolate confirmed cases on time,"
In Indonesia, critical reading skills are low and the desire to share information is high, which has resulted in the flooding of misinformation on social media. For months, WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts have spread misinformation making some people reluctant to take the shot in fear of serious illness or death. Claims that wearing masks inhibits breathing and that the COVID19 vaccines contain microchips. Other fake news claimed that the World Health Organization had lied about COVID19, and that it wasn't more dangerous than a regular cold, meaning that people did not need to wear masks or keep physical distance.
The fight against #COVID19 pandemic is entering a critical moment.— UN in Indonesia (@UNinIndonesia) July 12, 2021
The @UNinIndonesia team stands in solidarity with the people of Indonesia in these challenging circumstances. #OnlyTogether can we weather this storm.
⬇️UN Resident Coordinator's messagehttps://t.co/z42Qq2K6YC pic.twitter.com/QkByqboPeD
Misinformation has also hindered the government's emergency measures to contain the outbreak. People ignored the public mask mandate and / or protested the large-scale social restrictions and semi-lockdown policies imposed by some local governments. In large part, citizens were swayed by propaganda spread by social media influencers. When the Indonesian government started the vaccination program in January 2021, even more fake news and disinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine began to circulate. Nevertheless, it is important to note that, even before the outbreak of this disease, anti-vaccine campaigns and communities flourished in Indonesia.
Misinformation spread by conspiracy theorists has caused chaos and distress among the public, especially among frontline workers who are dealing with the influx of COVID19 patients. Therefore, the government has had to allocate its already limited resources to fight COVID19 fake news. The extent of misinformation and the damage it causes are understudied due to the end-to-end encryption and other privacy protections found within messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook.
Across Indonesia, intensive care unit beds are already full and hospitals are overwhelmed by patients. Some hospitals have built tents outside to attend to more patients but they are not understaffed. In addition, oxygen tanks are scarce and patients have to hop between hospitals in search of help. Sudirman Said, the secretary general of Indonesian Red Cross, reported that patients were traveling for hours to access vital medical care.
"Sick patients are just waiting for new deaths so they can even have a chance of making it inside a hospital."— Aida Greenbury (@AidaGreenbury) July 14, 2021
This is true. I went through the same when I tried to help a relative. I am devastated with the #COVID19 situation in Indonesia.https://t.co/WuoMAtzxbW pic.twitter.com/lvfSpKFFze
At least 14 million vaccines have been given to Indonesia through the COVAX program, according to state media. Experts warn, "The peak for the second Covid19 wave in Indonesia has not been reached yet."