President Widodo says pandemic changed Indonesia's culture

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures as he delivers his annual State of the Nation Address ahead of the country's Independence Day, at the parliament building in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. (Bagus Indahono, Pool photo via AP)

JAKARTA – Indonesia's president pledged to improve COVID-19 testing and treatment in a speech Monday marking the country's independence and said the pandemic has changed Indonesian culture in ways that would be a foundation for advancement.

Wearing masks, not shaking hands and avoiding crowds of people were once taboo, while working from home, distance learning, online meetings and online court have become new habits “that we used to be hesitant to do,” President Joko Widodo said in the national address marking the country's 76th anniversary of independence.

“Amid today’s disruptive world, the spirit to change, the spirit to make changes and the spirit to innovate have become the foundation to build an advanced Indonesia,” Widodo said. “With the COVID-19 pandemic, the acceleration of innovation has become an integrated part of our everyday lives.”

Only half of the 711 lawmakers and senators were in Parliament for Widodo’s speech on the eve of Independence Day, with the rest attending remotely in a social-distancing measure.

The world's fourth-most populous country hit peaks last month with daily highs of 50,000 new cases, more than five times the usual highs in June. July was also the deadliest month, with more than 30,100 deaths from COVID-19 as sick people overwhelmed hospitals or died at home or while awaiting care. Its totals of 3.8 million cases and 118,833 fatalities are considered undercounts due to low testing and poor tracing measures in the nation of 270 million people.

Widodo said almost all regional leaders are working hand in hand to address health and economic problems and his administration would improve on-the-ground management in testing, tracing, treatment and vaccination as well as provision of medical oxygen.

“The availability and affordability of medicines should be guaranteed and there is zero tolerance to anyone who obstructs our humanitarian and national missions,” Widodo said.

Once the country’s COVID-19 epicenter, Jakarta has been seeing declines in both active cases and new cases from mid-July to the past week, from over 100,000 to below 15,000 active cases per day and from over 10,000 to below 2,500 new cases per day.

Also, patients are not being turned away like in the past as the bed occupancy rate in hospitals declined in several regions.

Restrictions on public activities, which the government credits with helping to ease pressure on hospitals, are being eased in the capital. Authorities in Jakarta have reopened malls, places of worship and outdoor sport venues since last week with certain capacity limits, and people must show they've been vaccinated.

While current data are encouraging, the devastating health crisis is far from over, said Dewi Nur Aisyah, the National COVID-19 Task Force’s IT and data center head. She noted new COVID-19 cases are soaring in certain provinces outside the country’s most populated island of Java despite restrictions.

Indonesia began vaccinating aggressively earlier than many other countries in Southeast Asia. The country aims to inoculate more than 208 million of its 270 million people by March 2022, but authorities have only fully vaccinated 28 million people and partially vaccinated another 30.5 million so far.

“I’m fully aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it exhaustion, boredom, weariness, sadness and distress,” Widodo said, acknowledging that many criticisms have been directed to his administration, particularly on matters that have not been resolved yet.

“Constructive criticism is crucial and we always respond to that by fulfilling our responsibilities as expected by the people,” he said.