Indonesia has suffered through one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Asia, and indeed in the world. By early August, a second wave of COVID-19 that battered the archipelago had been estimated to have caused some fifty thousand deaths in a few weeks, with the total number of infections in the millions. A few weeks earlier, Indonesia had been declared one of the world epicenters of the virus, and the country was struggling to find enough oxygen, hospital beds, and other necessities for COVID patients. These figures may actually be understated, since Indonesia is a physically vast country, and it can be hard to amass statistics from some of the more remote parts of the archipelago.
The reasons why Indonesia was hit so hard are complex. Certainly, early in the pandemic both president Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, and other top leaders made major mistakes. Some promoted untested natural remedies to the novel coronavirus, while Jokowi remained hesitant at times to take any tough actions against the virus. Jokowi himself touted herbs to fight COVID-19, and in 2020 did not take any clear action during Eid, while people migrated all over the country and presumably spread the novel coronavirus.
More recently, as Jokowi has taken more stringent and scientifically-backed measures, the wave of new cases is due to some factors within Indonesia’s control and other factors that are not. In a massive country with densely packed central islands, and a large informal sector, it is naturally difficult to contain the virus. Delta is making transmission easier, and countries in the region like Myanmar, which has virtually no ability to contain COVID-19, may be spreading the virus throughout Southeast Asia. Unlike wealthier countries in the region such as Singapore, Indonesia did not have early widespread access to vaccines, and currently has only 18.5 percent of its eligible population fully vaccinated.
Indeed, the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, combined with the lack of high vaccination rates in most of Southeast Asia, has led to new outbreaks nearly everywhere in the region. Even countries that were touted as major success stories in 2020, like Vietnam and Thailand, which had few to no domestically transmitted cases last year and were acclaimed by public health specialists, are now averaging around nine thousand or ten thousand new cases per day.
And yet Indonesia now seems to have turned a corner. It is down to averaging just under two thousand new COVID-19 cases a day, and its death rate is falling as well. Some of this decline may be just occurring because the virus has already cut such a large swath, but Indonesia is also taking more proactive measures. It has begun to amass more vaccines from China, as well as donations from New Zealand and other countries, and leading officials have begun to more aggressively battle vaccine hesitancy. The country also has bolstered its testing and tracing capacities.
Indonesia’s safeguards still are not exactly great: The country ranks 49th out of 53 countries studied in Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking, although that study does not include countries poorer than Indonesia, who probably would fall far lower on the list.