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COVID-19 Is Hitting Indonesia Hard. Epidemiologists Say The Worst May Be Yet To Come

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Indonesia has vaulted to the front of a race no one wants to win. This week it surpassed India as the Asian nation with the most daily infections of COVID-19. Today alone the country logged 54,000 new infections and a record 1,025 deaths. And epidemiologists say the worst may be yet to come. Reporter Michael Sullivan covers Southeast Asia for us, and he joins us from Chiang Rai in Thailand. Hey there.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: So tell us a little bit more. These are awful numbers. What is the story behind these numbers?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's been a week of record numbers, as you mentioned. And some officials are saying that they expect it to get worse, especially now that the highly contagious delta variant is gaining traction fast. But they say they hope they can keep the number of new infections at fewer than 60,000 a day, though some Indonesian epidemiologists are very skeptical that will happen. Pandu Riono has been modeling the spread of the virus. He's at the University of Indonesia.

PANDU RIONO: The worst prediction will be more than 100,000. This will be next month or another next month. Maybe we reach the peak until more than 100,000 a day.

KELLY: More than 100,000 a day. Michael, what's the plan? What is the government doing about this, as these numbers go up and up and up?

SULLIVAN: Well, a few weeks ago, the president announced tighter restrictions on people's movement to stop the virus from spreading. Nonessential employees were told to stay home. Shopping malls, mosques and in-restaurant dining were all shut down. The government says it's now going to extend those restrictions for at least another two weeks. Not good enough, says epidemiologist Dicky Budiman of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

DICKY BUDIMAN: The problem now is that the government should strengthen the implementation under this emergency restriction.

SULLIVAN: And that's just not happening, he says.

KELLY: What about Indonesians themselves? How seriously are they taking this? Are they taking precautions?

SULLIVAN: They started taking it a lot more seriously in the past couple of weeks. But these same epidemiologists say that a lot of people just hadn't taken these partial lockdowns and other restrictions seriously enough before that, especially when they ignored travel bans and went ahead and went home from the cities to their villages during the holidays recently, and that only helped spread the virus. But, again, the government could have done more to enforce these restrictions, and now things are bleak. Irma Hidayana runs the crowdsourced database LaporCovid19. She also tries to help sick people find beds, and it's not working very well lately.

IRMA HIDAYANA: The hospitals, the health systems, I would say we are in collapse right now - because of what? Because there are still so many people have turned away from one hospital to another.

SULLIVAN: She says the number of people dying in self-isolation in their homes because they can't find hospital beds is increasing dramatically. It's a catastrophe, she says.

KELLY: You know, here in the U.S., our public health officials keep saying the way out of this is the vaccine; that's the way this pandemic ends. Are vaccines available in Indonesia? Are people taking them?

SULLIVAN: They are available, but there just haven't been enough to go around. And in Indonesia, Mary Louise, we're talking about more than 270 million people. Now there's almost no beds. They're running out of oxygen to hospitals and for people being treated in isolation at home. And even though many health care workers have been vaccinated with two shots of China's Sinovac vaccine, they're getting sick, too - so much so that the government has now started giving some, so far, scarce Moderna vaccine to boost their immunity. There's more Moderna and Pfizer and AstraZeneca coming, but not quickly enough.

KELLY: That's reporter Michael Sullivan updating us on these awful new numbers out of Indonesia. Thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: You're quite welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENOIT AND SERGIO'S "LONG NEGLECTED WORDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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