Dengue : Jakarta slow to act

Government once again demonstrates an inability to tackle crises.

The Indonesian government has described it as ‘an extraordinary event’.

Given the scale of the problem, the description is appropriate. The dengue fever outbreak has already killed 336 people and infected close to 10,000. And the numbers are growing.

Extraordinary events require extraordinary effort.

In Indonesia, however, it is anything but that, as events over the last two months demonstrate.

Much like in the case of the bird flu saga, when the health authorities reacted slowly and gave conflicting statements, this time has been no different.

The government has reacted too late, even though figures of those infected by dengue fever last month were more than twice the number recorded over the same period last year.

Why the delayed response?

The weekly Tempo magazine, in an editorial titled Dengue: The Enemy Within, has an answer:

‘The government is always one step behind, perhaps several steps. The fault lies with the constant habit of only handling a crisis when it is already upon us.’

Jakarta’s reaction to a national crisis is typical, characterised by confusion and a great deal of muddling through.

One does not need to go too far back in history to detect similar patterns of response during times of difficulty.

Take the haze saga.

In 1997, South-east Asia was enveloped in thick smog.

Smoke from forest fires in the Indonesian provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan blanketed the skies, causing chaos to shipping lanes and aviation routes.

The pollution indexes soared to record levels across the Malacca Straits in Singapore and Malaysia.

The situation did not change significantly two years later – and even today when the region faces the threat of more forest fires and haze.

But critics are more worried about Jakarta’s ability to tackle the current crisis.

The inaction by the government, which is also preparing for elections besides tackling ethnic violence and separatist insurgencies, is the problem, they say.

In the face of the crisis, the government’s response has been predictable: officials have thrown up their hands and said they have no money and resources.

To some extent, this is true – the financial budget for containing diseases spread by Aedes mosquitoes is limited.

The Health Ministry has moved to allocate an additional 10 billion rupiah (S$2 million) for fumigation.

Stung by criticisms, officials are taking more measures to contain the problem.

They have set up a team to carry out laboratory tests to identify whether a new virus strain is responsible for the disease, for which there is no vaccine.

Mr Umar Fahmi Achmadi, the Health Ministry’s director-general for communicable diseases, said a new sub-type of dengue virus in addition to the existing four sub-variants might be responsible.

But much more action is needed.

Several of those who have died are children under five years of age, many of them falling victim to late diagnosis by doctors.

Several of the doctors interviewed by local media have admitted that they were unaware of the speed with which the current dengue virus could spread.

Most hospitals here have since been ordered to give priority treatment to dengue patients. But there is poor implementation.

Hospitals are running out of drugs and people are being forced to pay despite a government pledge of free medical care.

Poor patients, in particular, were told they must come up with their own funds because most of the third-class hospital wards are now full.

Confusion mounts as the death toll rises.

Indeed, this is an extraordinary event.

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