Indonesia crossed a grim milestone on Tuesday as authorities confirmed that the nation’s coronavirus death toll passed 1,000, while a government minister said up to 3.7 million workers had been laid off or furloughed as a result of the pandemic.
The country’s infections also surged as health authorities confirmed 484 new cases, taking the cumulative tally to 14,749, according to Achmad Yurianto, spokesman for the country's COVID-19 task force.
“There were 16 new deaths, which bring the total number to 1,007,” Yurianto told a news conference.
National Development Planning Minister Suharso Monoarfa said the number of workers who were laid off or furloughed could be as high as 3.7 million.
“Our calculation is between 2 million and 3.7 million workers,” he said, adding that unemployment figures could reach 4.2 million by the end of the year.
Indonesia, which confirmed its first case of the virus in early March, has reported the highest number of fatalities from COVID-19 in Southeast Asia, followed by the Philippines with 751 deaths and 11,350 infections as of Tuesday.
Globally, more than 4.2 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and almost 290,000 have died as of Tuesday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Since the country of 268 million people confirmed its first two cases of the coronavirus on March 2, only 165,000 tests have been conducted, officials said. Indonesia’s case-to-fatality ratio is about 7 percent, about double the global average of 3.4 percent.
Some analysts said the death toll was likely to be higher because some patients who died after suffering from COVID-19 symptoms but were not tested were not included in the count. And with low rates of testing, cases are under-reported, they said.
“Patients with COVID-19 symptoms are treated as COVID-19 patients and when they die, they are buried in accordance with COVID-19 guidelines,” Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, told BenarNews.
“From the beginning I have suggested that these deaths be included [as coronavirus fatalities]. I think it’s important because it can be a measure of the capacity of our health-care system,” he said.
Experts raise questions about the curve
Joko Mulyanto, an epidemiologist at Jenderal Soedirman University, said it was hard to conclude from graphics of daily cases whether Indonesia’s curve had flattened.
“Testing rates fluctuate wildly. The ratio of the number of tests and positive cases is at about 10 percent, suggesting too little testing,” he said.
Before he declared a state of “health emergency” in early April, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo acknowledged that his government deliberately held back information about the coronavirus cases in the country.
“Indeed, we did not deliver certain information to the public because we did not want to stir panic,” Jokowi told reporters in March.
Still, as part of the government’s emergency measures, authorities imposed social restrictions scheduled to run until the end of May.
But Doni Monardo, the head of the country’s coronavirus task force, said on Monday that residents 45 and younger would be allowed to return to work in designated sectors because data showed they were not vulnerable to the disease.
Monardo said the government was trying to strike a balance between protecting the most susceptible section of the population and keeping the economy running to avoid mass layoffs.
Doni clarified his remarks on Tuesday, saying he was referring to the 11 sectors that the government had allowed to open during the pandemic, including health care, food, energy and logistics.
“Why do we recommend that employers give priority to relatively young people? Because the fatality rate among those 45 years and older is high,” Doni said.
Even as the government moves to allow some to return to work, Tjahjo Kumolo, the minister of Bureaucratic Reform, said the government had not considered easing social restrictions.
“The government regulation on large-scale social restrictions is still valid,” he said in a statement.
The greater Jakarta region, home to about 30 million people, West Java and several cities have imposed partial lockdowns including banning large gatherings and restricting travel since last month in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19.
But Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi last week decided to ease travel restrictions, allowing trains, flights and ferries to operate to serve those working in essential sectors, provided that social distancing measures are observed.
Indonesia suspended domestic air and sea travel on April 24 in a bid to curtail infections. The measure had been scheduled to run until the end of this month.
The transportation minister’s decision came after the government announced that the economy grew 2.97 percent in the first quarter, its slowest pace since 2001.
Pandu, the epidemiologist, criticized mixed signals sent by government officials.
“Officials have been making proposals without rigorous studies,” he told BenarNews. “At a time like this, what is needed is resoluteness on the part of the government to avoid confusion.”
Zainal Abidin, a member of the advisory council at the Indonesian Medical Association, said contradictory statements from government officials showed a lack of coordination.
“Regional governments want tighter restrictions, but the central government said they want to reopen public transportation. Even within the government there’s no common view,” he told BenarNews.
“The goal of returning to normal by July hinges on the seriousness of the government,” he said.