The World Health Organization on Thursday urged Indonesia to implement a stricter and wider lockdown to combat surging COVID-19 infections and deaths, just days after the country’s president flagged the easing of restrictions.
Indonesia has become one of the epicentres of the global pandemic in recent weeks, with positive COVID-19 cases leaping fivefold in the past five weeks. This week, daily deaths hit record highs over 1,300, among the highest tolls in the world.
In its latest situation report, the WHO said strict implementation of public health and social restrictions were crucial and called for additional “urgent action” to address sharp rises in infections in 13 of Indonesia’s 34 provinces.
“Indonesia is currently facing a very high transmission level, and it is indicative of the utmost importance of implementing stringent public health and social measures, especially movement restrictions, throughout the country,” it said.
Under Indonesia’s partial lockdown, social restrictions such as work-from-home and closed malls are limited to the islands of Java and Bali and small pockets in other parts of the country. Large sectors of the economy deemed critical or essential are exempt from most, or some, of the lockdown measures.
On Tuesday, President Joko Widodo flagged an easing of restrictions from next week, citing official data showing a fall in infections in recent days, which epidemiologists say has been driven by a drop in testing from already low levels.
“If the trend of cases continues to decline, then on July 26, 2021, the government will gradually lift restrictions,” Jokowi, as the president is known, said.
Indonesia’s daily positivity rate, the proportion of people tested who are infected, has averaged 30 per cent over the past week even as cases numbers have fallen. A level above 20 per cent meant “very high” transmissibility, the WHO said.
All but one of Indonesia’s provinces have a positivity rate above 20 per cent, with the outlier, Aceh, at 19 per cent, the WHO said.
The senior minister in charge of the partial lockdown, Luhut Pandjaitan, said easing of restrictions could occur in areas where transmission rates fell, hospital capacity increased and the “sociological condition” of residents demanded it.
Indonesia, Myanmar, and Malaysia have been showing sharp increases since late June and their seven-day averages hit 4.37, 4.29 and 4.14 per million, respectively, on Wednesday.
Cambodia and Thailand have also seen strong increases in both coronavirus cases and deaths, but have thus far held the seven-day rate per million people to a lower 1.55 and 1.38, respectively.
A variety of factors have contributed to the recent surge in several countries in Southeast Asia, including people growing weary of the pandemic and letting precautions slip, low vaccination rates and the emergence of the delta variant of the virus, which was first detected in India, said Abhishek Rimal, the Asia-Pacific emergency health co-ordinator for the Red Cross, who is based in Malaysia.
“With the measures that countries are taking, if people follow the basics of washing the hands, wearing the masks, keeping distance and getting vaccinated, we will be seeing a decline in cases in the next couple of weeks from now,” he said.
So far, however, Malaysia’s national lockdown measures have not brought down the daily rate of infections. The country of some 32 million saw daily cases rise above 10,000 on July 13 for the first time and they have stayed there since.
The vaccination rate remains low but has been picking up, with nearly 15 per cent of the population now fully inoculated and the government hoping to have a majority vaccinated by year’s end.
-From Reuters and The Associated Press, last updated at 7:05 a.m. ET
What’s happening in Tokyo
Tokyo hit another six-month high in new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, one day before the Olympics begin, as worries grow of a worsening of infections during the Games. Thursday’s 1,979 new cases are the highest since 2,044 were recorded on Jan. 15.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is determined to hold the Olympics, placed Tokyo under a state of emergency on July 12, but daily cases have sharply increased since then.
The emergency measures, which largely involve a ban on alcohol sales and shorter hours for restaurants and bars, are to last until Aug. 22, after the Olympics end on Aug. 8.
Japan has reported about 853,000 cases and 15,100 deaths since the pandemic began, most of them this year. Still, the number of cases and deaths as a share of the population are much lower than in many other countries.
The Olympics, delayed for a year by the pandemic, begin Friday. Spectators are banned from all venues in the Tokyo area, with limited audiences allowed at a few outlying sites.
-From The Associated Press, last updated at 7 a.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of early Thursday morning, more than 192 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The reported death toll stood at more than 4.1 million.
The Americas are facing a pandemic of the unvaccinated, the Pan American Health Organization said, as it warned that countries with low inoculation rates are seeing increases in COVID-19 and repeated a call for vaccine donations.
U.S. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, said in a TV town hall Wednesday night that it’s “gigantically important” for Americans to step up and get inoculated against the virus as it surges once again. Biden said the public health crisis has turned largely into a plight of the unvaccinated as the spread of the delta variant has led to a surge in infections around the country.
Africa, battling a severe third wave of COVID-19 infections, will start to receive the first batch of 400 million doses of vaccines from Johnson & Johnson next week, the African Union’s special envoy on COVID-19 said on Thursday. Only about 60 million doses have been administered among a total population of 1.3 billion so far on the 55-nation continent.
Meanwhile, Tunisian President Kais Saied said the military health department will take over management of the health crisis in the country amid a COVID-19 outbreak, highlighting an escalation of a battle over powers with the prime minister.
In Europe, hundreds of people protested in Paris against the introduction of a health pass for some activities and against compulsory vaccinations for health workers as the government seeks to curb a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections in France.
Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters who gathered Wednesday in Athens to oppose coronavirus vaccination requirements proposed by the Greek government.
In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia said it had banned direct or indirect travel by citizens to Indonesia over concerns about the coronavirus outbreak there, the state news agency SPA reported.
-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 7:15 a.m. ET
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