News ‘Humanitarian disaster’: Why Australia must help fight Indonesia’s spiralling COVID catastrophe

‘Humanitarian disaster’: Why Australia must help fight Indonesia’s spiralling COVID catastrophe

Watch: Everything you need to know about the COVID-19 variants.
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Human rights organisations are pleading with the federal government to deliver urgent assistance in vaccines and oxygen to Indonesia as our near neighbour battles a terrifying third wave of COVID-19

“This is scary,” said Andreas Harsono, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Jakarta, where many hospitals are full and the death toll is rising rapidly rising in Indonesia’s biggest COVID outbreak since the start of the pandemic.

“The situation in Indonesia is verging on a catastrophe,” warned Amnesty International’s Tim O’Connor.

After logging relatively low death and case tolls through the early stages of the pandemic, numbers have suddenly shot up.

People queue to refill oxygen tanks in Jakarta. Photo: AAP

The nation of 270 million people has recorded more than 2.2 million cases and 60,000 deaths and cases soared from 2300 per day in May, to above 27,000 this week, with 555 deaths reported on Sunday alone.

Those infection numbers may be “dramatically under-representative of reality”, notes the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Indonesia director David Engel, as the country has “one of the lowest testing rates in the world”.

Local media reported the health system on the island of Java is “paralysed” and “collapsed“, facing “its darkest pandemic days” as hospitals run out of oxygen and basic supplies.

The World Health Organisation’s latest situation reports warn hospitals are at “full capacity”.

“You hear ambulances all the time,” Mr Harsono told The New Daily.

“Hospitals are full, they’re using parking lots as the ICU. Oxygen is running low. We’re relying on people-to-people assistance. NGOs and religious groups are providing oxygen canisters. It’s too difficult to rely on the government now.”

Mr Harsono’s wife was recently diagnosed with COVID-19, but he can’t find a hospital bed for her. He said his Facebook timeline is full of messages about friends and family who have died from the virus.

Indonesia’s government has instituted stay-at-home orders in a bid to quell the outbreak. But Indonesian newspapers are calling on President Joko Widodo to “raise the white flag and ask friendly nations for help”.

Human Rights Watch’s Australia researcher Sophie McNeill called the situation “heartbreaking”.

“Australia ignores this at its own peril. This pandemic has taught us that really we are only as safe as our most vulnerable neighbour,” she told TND.

Pleas for Australian aid

The Australian government has pledged $77 million to Indonesia to help procure vaccines through the COVAX program, and has long promised to send vaccines to Pacific neighbours.

The government also directed large amounts of vaccines and medical help to recent virus explosions in India and Papua New Guinea.

Workers dig graves at a cemetery reserved for COVID deaths in Jakarta. Photo: AAP

At the recent G7 meeting in Cornwall attended by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, world leaders pledged to donate one billion COVID shots to developing nations.

But Labor, the Greens and human rights organisations are calling for more.

“The Morrison government must respond swiftly and comprehensively to emerging needs in Indonesia to support the country’s COVID response, including the emergency provision of oxygen,” Labor’s shadow minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy, told TND.

“The Morrison government must also explain how it is assisting with Indonesia’s vaccine rollout.”

Mr Conroy noted the government had committed money to COVAX, but said it “pales in comparison” to billion-dollar contributions from nations like the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Greens’ foreign affairs spokesperson, Janet Rice, called for “urgent, large-scale action to address this humanitarian disaster”, including “millions” more in aid.

That was echoed by Mr O’Connor, impact director with Amnesty International in Australia.

“The international community needs to come together and support Indonesia’s health system,” he told TND.

He also called for ventilators and vaccines, but added the federal government should make urgent moves to help Australians currently in Indonesia before they were unable to return home.

TND contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, for comment on any further assistance to Indonesia, and how Australia was supporting citizens in the country.

A response was not provided by publication time.

Creating variants

Escalating COVID outbreaks in populous developing countries are a problem for the whole world, according to Burnet Institute epidemiologist Professor Brendan Crabb.

Professor Crabb warned that – just like in Brazil and India – new, damaging virus variants can emerge from such hotspots, more likely to avoid immunity provided by vaccines.

“If we don’t stop COVID in its tracks globally, we’ll face a world that’s in disarray, destabilised and poorer,” he told TND.

“It’s a human tragedy, which is reason enough for us all to get busy in helping our neighbours. But we also have every self-interest reason to do it.”

Professor Crabb warned “the next India-level surge is on” around the world, with cases exploding in south-east Asia and Africa too.

“What comes out of that won’t be the Delta strain. By the time we have vaccine coverage, it’ll be out of date, because it’ll be a different virus,” he said.

“This is not just an abstract, feel-good thing. This also directly relates to Australia’s own future.”

Professor Crabb praised the federal government’s current commitments on vaccines and equipment, but said all nations could step up even more.

“Countries dripping in vaccines riches must do their bit for the poorest,” he said.

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