By Stanley Widianto
JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Monday he planned stricter rules on mobility and social distancing as a study presented to the government warned that more than 140,000 people could die from the coronavirus by May unless it takes tougher action.
Medical experts have said the world’s fourth most populous country must impose tighter movement restrictions as known cases of the highly infectious respiratory illness have gone from zero in early March to 1,414, with 122 deaths.
Indonesia accounts for nearly half of the 250 deaths reported across Southeast Asia, but some officials and experts believe a lack of testing has masked the scale of the outbreak.
Most infections in Indonesia have been concentrated in and around the capital Jakarta. The city of 10 million has declared a state of emergency, shutting down schools and public entertainment, but so far there has been no full public lockdown which the president has been reluctant to impose.
“I’m ordering large-scale social limits, physical distancing needs to be done more sternly, more disciplined, and effectively,” Widodo told a cabinet meeting, stressing that only the central government could decide on regional quarantines.
Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan said on Monday he had asked Widodo to approve a regional quarantine, “effectively a lockdown” for Jakarta.
He told Reuters he doubted the central government’s death tolls and had been informed by hospitals that 283 patients had died of a “contagious disease” but were treated with “Covid-19 protocols”.
“There’s a backlog in testing and limited numbers of people being tested,” Baswedan said, asking central authorities to act with more urgency.
“The hospitals have been informing us that patients had contagious disease’, but they are not saying COVID19.”
Official data puts the death toll in Jakarta at 74.
President Joko Widodo has encouraged social distancing but initially questioned whether Indonesians have the discipline for full lockdowns in contrast with other Southeast Asian nations.
But he started to reconsider this approach after public health experts presented a prediction model to Indonesia’s planning agency Bappenas on Friday underlining a need for stronger intervention to prevent a rapid rise in cases and deaths.
The model, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters, said Indonesia could instigate three stages of intervention: mild, moderate, and high. The latter would include very significant levels of testing and making physical distancing mandatory.
With mild intervention, which includes optional physical distancing and limiting public crowds, the researchers from the University of Indonesia said the virus death toll could soar to over 140,000 among over 1.5 million cases by May.
“These are just conservative estimates,” Pandu Riono, one of the researchers, told Reuters. “But we have to be ready even in these circumstances.”
Riono characterized measures currently taken by Indonesia, from rapid testing and deploying regional labs to test samples, as only approaching mild intervention. Health experts have expressed concerns over Indonesia’s significant deficit in hospital beds, medical staff and intensive-care facilities.
Riono said the priority now must be to suppress the number of cases. “The message (in our model) is that we don’t want people dying, we don’t want our siblings dying, our friends dying.”
(Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor, Maikel Jefriando, Fransiska Nangoy, Tom Allard and Gayatri Suroyo; Editing by Ed Davies, Mark Heinrich, Fanny Potkin and Hugh Lawson)