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Is Indonesia Really a Pandemic Basket Case?

You might think so from reading this NYT article. The piece tells readers that Indonesia had 20,000 positive cases on Thursday. Furthermore:

“and the national percentage of positive Covid tests reached 14.6 percent this past week. By comparison, the weekly positivity rate in the United States is now 1.8 percent.”

The article also reports that a number of doctors and other health care workers have been infected, and several have died, even after getting two shots of Sinovac, one of the vaccines developed by China.

Unfortunately, the piece does not put any of this in a context that is likely to make it meaningful to most NYT readers. First, it would be helpful to point out that Indonesia’s population is 276 million, more than 83 percent of the size of the U.S. population. That means the 20,000 cases reported on Thursday would be equivalent to roughly 24,000 cases in the United States. The infection rate in the United States peaked in late January at more than 250,000 a day, a figure more than ten times as high, adjusted for population.

While the high positive rate on tests indicates a large number of infections are going undetected, the U.S. also had a much higher positive test when its infection rates were peaking. In mid-January the positivity rate was averaging over 13.0 percent, only slightly lower than the rate in Indonesia.

It also is worth noting that the 20,000 cases reported on Thursday may have been an anomaly. The country reported 18,900 cases today and its seven day average is under 15,000.

Of course Indonesia is much poorer than the United States and is less able to deal with seriously ill Covid patients, but its lack of medical facilities and equipment is clearly the big problem, not the large number of cases.

Also, the report that some number of doctors and health care workers are getting sick, in spite of being vaccinated, is not inconsistent with the vaccine being effective, albeit considerably less effective that the mRNA vaccines developed in the United States and Europe. As the piece reports:

“While 90 percent of the vaccinated doctors who tested positive in Kudus were either asymptomatic or had very mild illness, according to Dr. Ahmad, an already stretched health care system has been pulled taut.”

The piece notes that only 5 percent of Indonesia’s population has been vaccinated. It would certainly be better if the country could get get access to the mRNA vaccines, but that is not an option at present. In this context, a Chinese vaccine that protects most people against serious illness, is the best available option.

This first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.