Indonesia to start mass Covid-19 vaccination this year, Jokowi says

A street sweeper checks his mobile phone as he takes a break near a coronavirus-themed mural in Jakarta, on Aug 14. (AP pic)

JAKARTA: Indonesia has sought emergency authorisation to start a mass vaccination campaign by the end of the year to combat the coronavirus in the archipelago, the Southeast Asian nation’s president said on Friday.

In an interview with Reuters, President Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, said plans were already advanced to distribute the vaccine across the entire country.

If approval is granted by the country’s food and drug agency, known by its Indonesian acronym BPOM, it will mean Indonesia — with 270 million people, the world’s fourth most populous country — will be among the first in the world to roll out a coronavirus vaccine.

“We expect to start the vaccination process by the end of this year following a series of tests by BPOM,” Jokowi said.

Indonesia has struggled to suppress the coronavirus for months but the steady rise in infection rates has plateaued in the past few weeks, according to official figures.

The country has Southeast Asia’s largest coronavirus caseload with about 15,000 deaths and 450,000 infections although health experts warn those numbers are likely to be higher due to low testing rates.

“We will put pressure on the cases, so they can stay flat, and then we will hit it with the vaccines,” Jokowi told Reuters at the presidential palace.

On Friday afternoon, after Reuters’ interview with Jokowi, Indonesia posted a record daily number of infections at 5,444, well above the daily average of fewer than 3,500 cases over the past two weeks.

Jokowi added that ensuring the safety of the vaccine was a priority, and that health workers, police and the military would be first in line when the vaccination campaign begins.

At a ministerial roundtable after the Jokowi interview, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan said the government expects BPOM approval in the first week of December and for Indonesia to “begin vaccinating” two weeks later.

Vaccines produced by China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm are slated to be used in the early stages of the campaign. This year, the companies will provide 18 million vaccines, including 15 million that will be manufactured by Indonesia’s state-owned pharmaceutical company Bio Farma.

All up, Indonesia has deals for more than 250 million doses until the end of 2021. This includes 30 million produced by the US company Novavax, co-ordinating minister for the economy, Airlangga Hartarto told Reuters.

Economic boost

Over the past two quarters, Indonesia’s economy has contracted at a slower pace than other countries in the region and Jokowi said the economic trend was “encouraging”.

“Hopefully, this (vaccination campaign) will give a positive economic impact. This is very important to us.”

He said the passage of a huge job creation bill that streamlined 79 existing laws to boost investment, spur business activity and drive employment was a “major structural reform” that would further add impetus to the economy.

Implementation of the reforms package, known as the Omnibus law, would be completed by the end of the year, Jokowi said.

When the bill was passed, there were widespread protests from workers, students and environmentalists and several trade unions have challenged the law in the Constitutional Court.

Such activism is normal in a democracy, the president said, adding that he was not worried about judicial review petitions against the new law.

The protests have petered out in recent weeks, and Jokowi said the government has reached out to unions and large Islamic organisations to convince them of the benefits of the Omnibus laws.

“The government of Indonesia is strongly committed to carrying out structural reforms and accelerating the economic transformation … by enacting the Job Creation law,” he said.