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Delta variant taking hold of Indonesia’s Papua as hospitals near capacity


JAKARTA — Hospitals in Indonesia’s easternmost region of Papua are nearing full capacity amid a surge in coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases, with health officials bracing for the full impact of the virulent Delta variant on one of the country’s least-developed areas.

The bed occupancy rate at some hospitals in Papua province had reached 100%, with emergency units and tents being used to treat COVID-19 patients, Dr. Aaron Rumainum, head of the Papua health agency’s disease control and prevention unit, said.

“We have the same problem as Java. Isolation rooms are full and there is a lack of oxygen,” he told Reuters, adding the Delta variant, first identified in India, had now been detected in the province.

Indonesia is in the throes of a raging coronavirus epidemic, with shortages of hospital beds and oxygen reported across the capital Jakarta, and other parts of densely populated Java island — a situation now fanning out to less developed regions.

Across Papua province the bed occupancy rate was about 57% but in the provincial capital of Jayapura it was more than 96%, said Silwanus Sumule, COVID-19 taskforce spokesperson and deputy director of the Jayapura General Hospital (RSUD).

There were currently 47 people waiting in the corridors, unable to get a room, he said.

“Maybe 47 isn’t a lot in places like Java, but it’s really big here,” he said. “We’ve never experienced this before, placing patients in corridors like that.”

Indonesia’s Papuan region, divided into the two provinces of West Papua and Papua, has poorly equipped health facilities and low vaccination rates, leaving it dangerously exposed to the virus.

“Before COVID, there was already endemic disease in Papua that was not well handled, such as malaria and tuberculosis, let alone this emergency situation,” said Adriana Elisabeth, a political analyst from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) who researches Papua.

“If the government does not restrict mobility, the healthcare system will certainly collapse.”

Earlier this week, Papua Governor Lukas Enembe said he was considering blocking access in and out of the province to curb the spread of COVID-19, according to media reports.

A spokesperson for the governor was not immediately available for comment.

Based on data from Indonesia’s ministry of health, Papua has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with less than 6% of people fully vaccinated, while positivity rates have surpassed 31%.

Activists say vaccination levels have remained stubbornly low in part because some indigenous Papuans distrust the central government, while nurses in the region say disinformation about the pandemic is rampant.

Adding to the complexity of a health response, a low-level insurgency for Papuan independence has simmered for decades and many may be wary of cooperating with authorities particularly if security forces are involved.

Indonesia has reported more than 2.9 million coronavirus cases and 77,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, with an accelerating caseload and high death rate making the country the current epicentre of Asia’s outbreak. Public health experts say the true number of infections is likely several times higher.

Indonesia’s death rate from COVID-19 was more than three times the global rate as of July 20, based on Our World in Data figures.

This week, President Joko Widodo announced that existing social restrictions would be extended until July 25, but could be eased if infections dropped. — Agustinus Beo Da Costa/Reuters

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