May 14, 2020 / 1:49 PM / 22 days ago

Indonesia's chronic testing lag undermines fight against COVID-19

JAKARTA (Reuters) - More than a month after Indonesian President Joko Widodo promised to ramp up coronavirus testing, medical workers are complaining of persistent delays in the process.

Healthcare workers wearing protective face masks pray for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients during a briefing in the emergency room at Persahabatan Hospital in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 14, 2020. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

The Southeast Asian nation, the world’s fourth most populous, has the highest coronavirus death toll in East Asia outside China, and one of the lowest global testing rates.

Indonesia reported 568 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, taking the total to 16,006, with 1,043 deaths. It has so far conducted around 50 tests per 100,000 people, compared with 2,500 per 100,000 in neighbouring Singapore.

“We can’t even get the results after two weeks,” Meneldi Rasmin, a consulting doctor at Persahabatan Hospital in Jakarta, told Reuters.

“So we cannot determine whether it’s COVID-19 or not. We can only judge them (the patients) from clinical symptoms,” he said, attributing the delay to limited equipment capacity.

COVID-19 is the lung disease caused by the new coronavirus.

President Widodo promised in April that 10,000 tests would be performed each day, but the goal is yet to be reached, with testing rates on average hovering at less than half that figure.

Health experts have urged Jakarta to rapidly increase its testing rate to determine the true spread of the virus across the Indonesian archipelago, saying that without sufficient data the full extent of the COVID-19 outbreak will remain unknown.

In between his rounds at Persahabatan Hospital where medical staff move about in white protective gear, Rasmin called for testing capacities to be scaled up not only in the capital, but across the sprawling country.

“Early detection by rapid testing should take place in every small district. Local clinics should take control, instead of (centralized) rapid testing,” he said.

“It should be organized at the community level, working together with the district authority.”

A health ministry official has said that more than 33,000 patients are suspected of having the novel coronavirus.

Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Gareth Jones

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