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Indonesia Stumbles As Coronavirus Cases Surge


Indonesia has the most COVID-19 infections and deaths in Southeast Asia with more than 88,000 confirmed cases and more than 4,200 dead. Partial lockdowns and social distancing have apparently failed in the world's fourth most populous nation. And as Michael Sullivan reports, epidemiologists say it's going to get a lot worse.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: As the coronavirus started sweeping the world in February, Indonesia's health minister stubbornly insisted the country was virus-free, that prayer was keeping it safe. Indonesia's president knew better but stayed silent, later telling reporters he hadn't wanted to create panic. That delay, epidemiologists say, cost Indonesia big time.

PANDU RIONO: We have a lot of big missed opportunity. This is the problem. If you want to protect people, do something seriously, and do something right.

SULLIVAN: That's Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia who says the government did neither. Panji Fortuna Hadisoemarto is a lecturer at Padjajaran University in Bandung, Indonesia.

PANJI FORTUNA HADISOEMARTO: The central government, for the most part, was very slow in deciding what to do. I guess one of the explanation was that there was a big pull and push between economy and controlling the disease.

SULLIVAN: Unlike other Southeast Asian nations that have successfully contained the virus - Vietnam, Thailand - Indonesia has had no nationwide lockdown, with local governments left largely to fend for themselves. Partial lockdowns in the capital of Jakarta and other cities started late - in April. And most ended early - in June - too early, experts say.

HADISOEMARTO: I don't think Indonesia - the central government, I'm saying - has the means and resources to stop the disease now.

SULLIVAN: Again, Panji Fortuna Hadisoemarto.

HADISOEMARTO: I think it's going to be a fairly long way for Indonesia to recover from COVID-19. You know, people have talked about the second wave. I think we haven't even seen the peak of the first one.

SULLIVAN: A lack of testing and a proliferation of bad information haven't helped. Indonesia's agriculture minister, for example, said two weeks ago that his team had developed a eucalyptus necklace to ward off the virus - a claim that frustrated public health experts. Critics say the rising number of infections may also be a result of mixed messages from the government. For example...

HABIB ABIYAN DZAKWMAN: I think the government now tries to defend the increasing cases by saying that, OK, this is due to more testings. And I think this is somehow worrying.

SULLIVAN: That's Habib Abiyan Dzakwman with the Disaster Management Research Unit at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta worrying, he says, because it encourages people to think the worst is over.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Indonesian).


SULLIVAN: For example, these children playing on the beach on the tourist island of Bali could soon have company when Bali reopens to international tourists in September, including planned direct flights from the U.S. despite both countries' poor record in containing the virus. By then, epidemiologist Pandu Riono says if the central government doesn't impose and enforce strict rules on masks, social distancing and washing hands, his modelling suggests...

RIONO: Maybe the possibility we report 4,000 cases daily.

SULLIVAN: That's almost double the highest daily total so far. Pandu says at this pace, Indonesia's infection rate won't peak until October or November.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEA WOLF SONG, "OLD FRIEND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.