A hotline number was established for the 190 hospitals in Jakarta to phone in suspect cases.
“The numbers continued to go up in January, in February, and then immediately we set out a government decree … to everyone in our office – in the provincial government – they were all given tasks to tackle this COVID,” Anies said.
“And then when the numbers started to go up continuously, at that time we were not allowed to do testing. So whenever we have cases, we send the samples to the [national government-controlled] national lab. And then the national lab will inform, positive or negative. By the end of February, we were wondering why it is all negative?”
“At that time I decided to go public and I said we have been monitoring, these are the numbers. Immediately it was sort of responded to by the Ministry [of Health] who said we have no positive cases.”
Throughout January and February, Health Minister Terawan Agus repeatedly denied Indonesia had any cases of coronavirus – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – because of the “power of prayer”, while President Joko Widodo has admitted to withholding information from the public to avoid panic.
While Indonesia is now reporting its coronavirus figures daily, Anies disputes the national government’s optimistic view that the nation has been through the worst.
“I am not yet sure if we are flattening. We have to wait the next few weeks to conclude whether the trend is flattening or we are still moving up,” he said.
Indonesia’s COVID-19 taskforce has suggested “normal” life – or an approximation – could resume by June or July. That target date now appears to be slipping to August.
“Why don’t I want to make predictions? Because I am looking at the data, it doesn’t reflect something that will be over soon. That’s what the epidemiologists are saying. This is the time in which policymakers need to trust science,” Anies said.
The governor also expressed frustration with the national government – and in particular with the Ministry of Health – for a lack of transparency.
“From our side, being transparent and telling [people] what to do is providing a sense of security. But the Ministry of Health felt the other way around, that being transparent will create panic. That’s not our view.”
To back his claim that Jakarta has many more cases than the capital’s official figure of 4770 infections and 414 deaths, Anies cited a sharp rise in the number of funerals – 4300 services in the second half of March, 4590 in April.
Anies says there are normally 3000 funerals a month in Jakarta, suggesting up to 1500 more deaths per month than average.
“These excess deaths are high probability COVID cases, and then if we say five to 10 per cent [mortality rate], perhaps out there, there are 15 to 30,000 infections [in Jakarta]. We think the number [of deaths and infections] is way higher than what is reported by the Ministry of Health.”
Asked about the capital’s testing capacity, Anies is upbeat – Indonesia has struggled to ramp up testing, but has recently obtained more antigen tests from South Korea and China.
Jakarta, he said, could process 3086 tests a day and now had 23 labs, a far cry from the early days of the outbreak.
When the outbreak began, six of Jakarta’s 190 hospitals were designated as COVID-19 referral hospitals. Now there are 63 “frontline” hospitals, but 172 hospitals are treating coronavirus cases.
The 1600 designated COVID-19 beds have never been fully occupied, Anies says, and right now, only 900 of Jakarta’s ICU units are in use.
The governor believes Joko should have banned mudik, the annual religious holiday pilgrimage to family villages, much sooner than he did – April 21- to prevent the spread of infection.
Anies estimates that 1.6 million people have left Jakarta for the annual visit anyway – down from 7 million in 2019.
To stop a second wave of infections returning to the capital in late May, Anies said people looking to return to the capital after mudik will be blocked.
Criticised by some national government politicians for “over-reacting”, Anies is blunt in his reply.
“I’m not worried about what social media says about our policy, I’m more worried about what the historians will be writing in the future about our policy.”
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James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.