Only weeks after the peak of Indonesia’s second COVID-19 wave in July, Jakarta couple Rahmadian Satari and Myrna Kirana were winging their way to Bali for a holiday.
“When the cases dropped, I heard that my office will start to have their staff back working on site soon,” Satari said.
“So we thought this would be the best time to go, while Bali was still relatively quiet.”
By all measures the situation in Indonesia has dramatically improved.
The number of active coronavirus cases has fallen from a high of more than 570,000 in July to about 50,000 cases this week.
According to Indonesia’s COVID-19 task force, the number of new coronavirus cases on Monday was 1,932, the lowest daily total this year. About 3,260 cases were recorded on Tuesday.
In response, the government has eased restrictions and local tourists are now allowed back to islands like Bali and Lombok, two of the country’s main tourist areas.
But with vaccination rates in Indonesia still low there are fears so-called “revenge travel” could fuel a deadly third wave of the virus.
Until jetting off, Satari and Ms Kirana had stayed bunkered down at home, too scared to venture out as the health system was overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.
“We were worried but at the same time bored at home, for around 18 months not being able to go on holiday,” Satari told the ABC.
Despite the lower case numbers, they still took precautions on their trip especially because Ms Kirana has an autoimmune disease and was not vaccinated.
Satari said they wore special masks on the flight, only ate outdoors away from other people and stayed in the most removed villa they could find.
“Before arriving, we were a little bit worried but when we got there we felt safe, and that’s why we ended up spending around four weeks there,” he said.
How Indonesia became Asia’s epicentre
The Delta variant hit Indonesia hard, seeded by people heading home for the big Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr in May.
It took 14 months for Indonesia’s toll from the pandemic to reach 50,000 deaths but it doubled to more than 100,000 in the nine weeks from the start of June.
With hospitals overwhelmed, mainly in Java, and medical oxygen supplies scarce, patients were turned away and cared for at home by family.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo ordered country-wide restrictions (locally known as PPKM) on July 3.
They included a ban on dine-in services at restaurants, work-from-home mandates for workers in nonessential sectors and some travel restrictions.
The restrictions were initially set to end on July 20, but were extended until September.
On July 15 new daily cases reached a peak of 56,757 and the daily death toll topped 2,000 on July 27.
On Tuesday the health authorities recorded 171 COVID-19 deaths.
According to the coordinating minister for maritime and investment, Luhut Panjaitan, the government is now considering allowing foreign tourists to come to Bali and parts of Indonesia from as early as October.
Indonesia’s COVID-19 task force spokesman Wiku Adisasmito said he was cautiously optimistic about the situation.
“Maintaining it is more difficult than achieving it, therefore cooperation and consistency are needed in controlling COVID-19 with a full sense of responsibility,” Professor Adisasmito said.
He said the authorities would need to continuously monitor the situation and optimise policies considering that “COVID-19 is very dynamic”.
Curve similar to India’s
According to Septian Hartono, data coordinator for independent COVID-19 data initiative KawalCOVID-19, the curve of Indonesia’s second wave was similar to India’s.
“The surge in cases was similar in Indonesia and India as it increased rapidly and then dropped rapidly,” Hartono said.
“The real cases could be much higher than the official reports because of testing and tracing capabilities but the trend has been consistent.
“The Delta variant wave has stopped.”
Hartono also compared Jakarta’s curve to Sydney’s.
“Sydney’s strategy to flatten the curve resulted in cases increasing and decreasing gradually with hospitals not overwhelmed, while in Indonesia, the cases went up quickly and then down rapidly, but the health system collapsed and the death toll increased dramatically,” he said.
Dr Riris Andono, an epidemiologist from Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University, said his own “qualitative observations” showed that the situation had improved.
“We don’t hear the sound of ambulances as much as we did in July,” he said.
Dr Andono said the reasons for the steep drop in cases were still unclear and more data from the field was needed.
The number of people with antibodies, vaccination rates and movement restrictions may all have played a role, he said.
“However, I still don’t have the full answers,” he said.
According to health ministry data, about 23 per cent of the targeted 208 million Indonesians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The government is aiming to vaccinate 2.3 million people per day during September.
To date, Indonesia has recorded 4.19 million COVID-19 cases and more than 140,000 deaths.
Hartono said he didn’t believe the figures gave an accurate account of the toll of the pandemic in Indonesia.
“Now is the right time for the Indonesian government to conduct an audit of excess death data as well as a seroprevalence survey to find out the excess death during the pandemic and what proportion of the Indonesian population already has antibodies,” Hartono said.
Excess deaths refers to the difference between the number of people who died during a specific time period compared to the long-term average.
Seroprevalence is the proportion of a population who have antibodies to a disease after being exposed to it or from vaccination.
KawalCOVID-19 estimates that 60-70 per cent of Jakarta’s population may have been exposed to COVID-19, well above the number of confirmed cases.
According to government data, only 8 per cent of Jakarta’s population have tested positive to COVID-19.
“Unfortunately we do not have the same data on a national scale,” Hartono said.
The dangers of ‘revenge travel’
Like Satari and Ms Kirana, Tepi Mumpuni decided to take advantage of the lull in the pandemic to travel, going on a 560-kilometre road trip with three friends from Jakarta, heading east to Semarang and Yogyakarta in Central Java.
“We waited until all of us were fully vaccinated,” Ms Mumpuni, who had just left a job in the capital, said.
“We chose Yogyakarta as our main destination because it’s not too far from Jakarta.
“We drove ourselves and also we brought our own utensils and some food so we wouldn’t need to go to restaurants when they were full.”
Dr Andono said he was concerned about “revenge travel” referring to a term circulating in local media.
He said both the first and second waves were linked to religious holidays which saw millions of people travelling back to their home towns, especially in Java where 70 per cent of the population reside.
“We saw that following the Eid holiday in July 2020, where previously cases were concentrated in Jakarta they then spread to Java,” he said.
“During the Eid holiday that started in May 2021, cases of the Delta variant surged around the world with the peak coinciding with Eid Haj in July.”
Indonesia has no more big holidays until Christmas in December, but Dr Andono said he was still concerned.
“We have a bigger middle class now who in the last two years were deprived of holidays,” he said.
“Now some people already are saying that they will go on holidays to as many places and times as they can to compensate for missing out.”
He said that the movement of people was inevitable, and should be encouraged for economic and social reasons, but people gathering in tourist destinations should be managed properly.
“This is a big task for the government and also us as individuals,” he said.
“We could safely go on holiday on an uncrowded beach, but what would you do when the place was packed with people?”
Both Satari and Ms Mumpuni said they shared Dr Andono’s concern about people gathering on holidays but were optimistic the situation was under control and look forward to more travelling.
“We are now planning to go back to Yogyakarta in December and if there is no quarantine requirement we plan to go [on a] holiday overseas in May next year,” Ms Mumpuni said.
“Here, apart from Eid holiday, I think the number of people travelling around isn’t that huge.
“With proper management from the government and all of us, I am not that worried.”
Satari said he was worried that people would become complacent but so far was happy from what he experienced in Bali.
“As the main tourist destination, Balinese know that they need to treat COVID-19 seriously and that they have shown that to make tourists feel safe to come back,” he said.