Indonesia short on oxygen, seeks help
JAKARTA, Indonesia, July 11, (AP): Just two months ago, Indonesia was coming to a gasping India’s aid with thousands tanks of oxygen.
Today, the Southeast Asia country is running out of oxygen as it endures a devastating wave of coronavirus cases and the government is seeking emergency supplies from other countries, including Singapore and China.
A shipment of more than 1,000 oxygen cylinders, concentrators, ventilators and other health devices arrived from Singapore on Friday, followed by another 1,000 ventilators from Australia, said Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the government minister in charge of Indonesia’s pandemic response. Beside those donations, Indonesia plans to buy 36,000 tons of oxygen and 10,000 concentrators — devices that generate oxygen — from neighboring Singapore, Pandjaitan said.
He said he is in touch with China and other potential oxygen sources. The US and the United Arab Emirates also have offered help.
“We recognize the difficult situation Indonesia currently finds itself in with a surge of COVID cases,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. In addition to sending vaccines, the US is working to increase assistance for Indonesia’s broader COVID-19 response efforts, she said, without elaborating.
Overall, Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country, has reported more than 2.4 million infections and 64,631 fatalities from COVID-19. Those figures are widely believed to be a vast undercount due to low testing and poor tracing measures. Indonesia reported the highest toll of 1,040 deaths on Wednesday and nearly 39,000 confirmed cases on Thursday and Friday.
Hospitals are swamped, with growing numbers of the ill dying in isolation at home or while waiting to receive emergency care.
On Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, hospitals began setting up makeshift intensive care units in mid-June. Many patients are waiting for days to be admitted. Oxygen tanks were rolled out onto sidewalks for those lucky enough to get them, while others have been told they have to find their own.
Emergency rooms at a public hospital in Bandung city closed earlier this week after running out of oxygen amid panic buying fueled by soaring infections in the West Java provincial capital, said Yaya Mulyana, the city’s deputy mayor.
“Panicked people bought oxygen tanks even though they didn’t need them yet,” Mulyana said. “That has led to oxygen supplies running out.”
At one hospital in Yogyakarta, in central Java, 63 COVID-19 patients died in one day — 33 of them during an outage of its central liquid oxygen supply, though the hospital had switched to using oxygen cylinders, spokesman Banu Hermawan said.
Indonesia donated 3,400 oxygen cylinders and concentrators to India when a brutal outbreak ravaged the country. As its own cases surged, Jakarta then canceled a plan to send another 2,000 oxygen concentrators to India in late June.
The daily need for oxygen has reached 1,928 tons a day. The country’s total available production capacity is 2,262 tons a day, according to government data.
“I asked for 100% of oxygen go to medical purposes first, meaning that all industrial allocations must be transferred to medical,” said Pandjaitan, the government minister. “We are racing against time, we have to work fast.”
Given the rapid spread of the highly infectious delta variant, he warned that Indonesia could face a worst-case scenario with 50,000 cases a day. The next two weeks will be critical, he said.
The Ministry of Industry responded by issuing a decree that all oxygen supplies be sent to hospitals overflowing with coronavirus patients, and asked industry players to cooperate.
Oxygen is used in making many products, including textiles, plastics and vehicles. Oil refiners, chemical manufacturers and steel makers also use it. But industry leaders have fallen in line in supporting government efforts to maximize supplies for hospitals.
The government has redirected oxygen supplies from industrial plants in Morowali in Central Sulawesi, Balikpapan on Borneo island, and Belawan and Batam on Sumatra islands, Pandjaitan said. Smaller oxygen industries have also been directed to produce pharmaceutical oxygen.
Several countries around Asia and the Pacific that are experiencing their first major surges of the coronavirus rushed to impose tough restrictions, a year and a half into a pandemic that many initially weathered well.
Faced with rapidly rising numbers of infections in recent months, authorities in such countries as Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam announced or imposed measures Friday that they hope can slow the spread before health care systems are overwhelmed.
It’s a rhythm familiar in much of the world, where repeated surges deluged hospitals and led to high numbers of deaths. But many Asian countries avoided that cycle by imposing stiff travel restrictions combined with tough measures at home.
Now some are seeing record numbers of new cases and even deaths, blamed in part on the highly contagious delta variant combined with low rates of vaccination and decisions to ease restrictions that have hit economies hard. Though overall numbers are nowhere yet near those seen during outbreaks in hotspots in Europe and the United States, the rapid rise set off alarm bells just as many Western countries with high vaccine rates began to breathe a sigh of relief.
Thailand reported a record number of new deaths on Thursday with 75 - and they came in at 72 on Friday. South Korea set a record for number of new cases on Thursday, only to break it on Friday with 1,316 infections, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. For the first time, Indonesia is seeing a surge that has hospitals turning patients away and oxygen supplies running out.
Of Thailand’s 317,506 confirmed cases and 2,534 deaths since the pandemic started, more than 90% have come since the start of April.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s handling of the surge has been widely criticized, including the decision to allow people to travel for April’s Songkran festival celebrating Thailand’s New Year.
Thailand already has strict regulations on wearing masks and other rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the government announced even more stringent measures Friday for Bangkok and the surrounding area, including closing spas, limiting the hours of public transit, and restricting the opening times of markets and convenience stores.
“There is something wrong with the government policies, our vaccinations are too slow, and we should get better vaccines,” said resident Cherkarn Rachasevet, a 60-year-old IT analyst, who hustled to the grocery store to stock up on supplies after hearing new restrictions were coming, wearing four masks and a face shield.
She lamented that she isn’t due for her first shot until the end of the month.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, immunization rates have lagged for a variety of reasons, including production and distribution issues as well as an initial wait-and-see attitude from many early on when numbers were low and there was less of a sense of urgency.
In South Korea - widely praised for its initial response to the pandemic that included extensive testing and contact-tracing - critics are now blaming a current spike in cases on the government’s push to ease social-distancing because of economic concerns.