Concerns mount over Indonesia’s sputtering COVID-19 vaccinations

Most vaccinations have been distributed in the more urban areas of the archipelago’s largest islands, Java and Bali, while many on smaller, more rural islands – where health care is often rudimentary and the population tends to be older – are not. reached, said Dicky Budiman, an Indonesian epidemiologist and academic adviser to the government.

As more people travel back to these areas during the holidays, there’s a greater risk that the virus will spread to those populations, some of which are protected in part by their isolation, he said.

“It won’t be as bad as what we saw in July and August, but if we look maybe at the first wave, in January 2020, maybe it will be similar because of their fragility,” he said.

Because Indonesia started its vaccination program early, its effectiveness is now more likely to decline, he said. Boosters are planned, but probably won’t start until early 2022.

The government is urging people to avoid travel if they can and has tightened restrictions in all provinces over Christmas and New Years, but some 20 million people are still expected to vacation in the popular islands of Java and Bali during the Holidays.

Budiman said the country must now speed up its vaccination program as cases have fallen and health care systems are not overwhelmed.

Indonesia has reported more than 4.25 million cases and 143,000 deaths from COVID-19 among its 270 million people. At the height of the latest wave in July, it hit 56,757 cases a day as hospitals were overrun with sick patients and beds and oxygen supplies ran out.

With a poor track record of testing and case reporting, many have questioned the official numbers, and the health ministry admitted this week that there may have been about four times the number of cases officially listed.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Health, Siti Nadia Tarmizi, noted that an antibody survey among residents of Jakarta earlier this year suggested that nearly 50% of people in the capital were infected with COVID-19.

Budiman said his own research suggests that as many as 30-35% of Indonesia’s population has had COVID-19 — which could be silver lining the vaccination cloud in the sense that many would have developed natural immunity to the virus.

“But it’s far from the threshold for herd immunity, and we know that immunity to both the vaccines and the infections is declining,” he said.

Aside from distribution issues to remote areas, predominantly Muslim Indonesia is facing increasing reluctance to get vaccines from many due to the belief that shots other than the Chinese-made Sinovac are not “Halal” or allowed under Islamic law. although Indonesia’s Ulema Council, the top Islamic body, has said that all vaccines are allowed.

Safrizal Rahman, head of the Indonesian Medical Association in Aceh province, on the northwestern tip of the island of Sumatra, said officials should contact local religious leaders to ask for their support to continue with vaccines.

“We have to make it a priority because they are role models for society,” he told The Associated Press.

Aceh currently has only about 35% of its people partially vaccinated, up from about 30% in September, and it faces mounting headwinds, including the growing spread of misinformation, he said.

“Our education still falls short compared to what people are learning on social media,” he said. “Unfortunately, what comes out on social media is a lot of hoaxes, but it has more influence in society than what is found in official sources.”

It didn’t help that the prominent voice of former health minister Siti Fadilah Supari, who was serving a corruption conviction, was one of those sources who advised against getting the vaccine, citing completely debunked conspiracy theories.

As the number of cases has fallen in recent times, the sense of urgency to get vaccinated has also diminished, and the World Health Organization has noted a sharp drop in the number of injections given for three weeks in a row, most recently down 11, 3% from November 15 to 21.

The government is trying to get things going, acquiring 102 million doses of vaccine in December through purchases and donations from other countries.

More cold storage is also being added so that each province has at least one facility equipped to store large quantities.

Indonesia’s health minister, Budi Gunadi Sadikin, noted the recent resurgence in the spread of the virus in Europe and earlier this week urged people not to be lulled into a false sense of security by the current low a number of cases.

He stressed that they should take every vaccine that becomes available, noting that AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna have been shown to be more effective than the more popular Sinovac.

“Don’t worry, these vaccines have been shown to be safe, so don’t hesitate to get vaccinated immediately,” he said.

“Don’t let what happened in Europe happen to us,” he added.

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