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A health care worker prepares a dose of Covid-19 vaccine in Indonesia. Photo: EPA

Indonesian man’s claim of 14 extra vaccine shots spotlights hesitancy problem as many refuse to roll up sleeves

  • The man in Sulawesi, who claimed to be double-jabbed, said he was paid US$7-US$56 for each of the 14 vaccine shots he received on behalf of others.
  • Vaccine hesitancy and logistics issues means less than half the population has been double jabbed. Indonesia reported its first local Omicron variant case on Tuesday.

Donald, a 56-year-old businessman from Medan on Indonesia’s Sumatra island, took his second shot of the Sinovac vaccine in July.

Last month, when a friend called him and asked if he wanted a booster, Donald (who declined to reveal his identity and asked that a pseudonym be used) decided to go for it. This was even though the Health Ministry was not officially offering booster shots to most residents.

Due to supply shortages, health care workers have been prioritised, with some 1.2 million booster shots administered so far to those who received their second jabs at least six months earlier.

Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said last month that boosters would only be made available to the general public once 50 per cent of the population had received two vaccine doses. As of Tuesday, that milestone had still not been reached, with government figures showing that about 110 million – or some 41 per cent of the population – had received two jabs.

Donald got his booster shot at his friend’s office, where a nurse arrived with a cooler bag full of what were purportedly leftover vaccines from a puskesmas, or government-run community health centre.

Children queue to receive a dose of Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine at a school in Bali, Indonesia, on Thursday. Photo: AP

“She said that they had been rejected by local residents,” Donald said.

The nurse told him that the health centre had a daily quota of vaccine doses it had to get through, he said, and that any unused ones were taken by well-meaning staff to be given to those who were willing to take them.

“I thought, ‘Yes, why not?’ I got it through the back door,” Donald added.

In Indonesia, anti-vaccine messages come with dose of anti-Chinese sentiment

Donald’s story shows how vaccine hesitancy has further complicated the inoculation drive in Southeast Asia’s largest economy, where logistical challenges have made it difficult to ensure vaccine coverage across the archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.

Then, there is also the ad hoc approach to vaccinations that have made the national inoculation programme – which has largely relied on Chinese vaccines Sinovac and Sinopharm – ripe for abuse.

Earlier this month, a man in Pinrang, South Sulawesi, uploaded a video to social media in which he claimed he had received 14 shots of the Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine in place of other people who were hesitant about receiving the jab.

Abdul Rahim said he was paid between 100,000 and 800,000 rupiah (US$7-US$56) per shot by people who wanted a certificate of vaccination – which are now widely required across Indonesia for travel and to enter public places such as shopping centres, cafes and restaurants – without actually having to receive a dose.

He claimed to have already been double jabbed, meaning he would have received some 16 vaccine doses in total. The local police and Indonesia’s Health Ministry said that they were investigating the claims made in the video, and were deciding whether to charge Rahim under the country’s Infectious Diseases Law.

Under the law, anyone who “hinders the implementation of pandemic control” may be imprisoned for up to one year and may face a fine.

Vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccine mentality still exists in Indonesia in significant numbers
Dicky Budiman, epidemiologist

Rahim’s video quickly went viral on Indonesian social media, but not everyone found the claims he made particularly shocking.

“It was not a surprise to me because vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccine mentality still exists in Indonesia in significant numbers,” said Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia.

“That is also one of the reasons why the pace of the vaccine programme has started to slow down, especially outside Java island.”

Local police in Sulawesi responded to the controversy by rounding up the people Rahim said he had stood in for and ordering them to get vaccinated. Three of the people later told the police they had avoided getting jabbed out of a fear of needles and worries about side effects. Other common reasons cited for vaccine hesitancy in Indonesia include a lack of clear positive messaging about the benefits and suspicion of local authorities in some areas.

“The really important message from the Abdul Rahim case is that one person can receive many vaccines and get payment for that,” said Budiman, the epidemiologist. “It shows that the system still needs to be strengthened.”

He suggested that health officials administering vaccines in Indonesia needed to spend more time verifying people’s identities and lodging complaints if any discrepancies were found.

Indonesians are supposed to provide a photocopy of their photo ID card, or KTP, to get vaccinated. But clinics in some areas appear not to be following these requirements, as Rahim and Donald’s cases show.

The controversy comes as Indonesia reported its first community case of the Omicron variant of coronavirus. The 46 cases reported earlier were mostly imported from abroad and 40 of the patients had received two shots of the Covid-19 vaccine. One of the earlier cases was an employee at an isolation hospital in Jakarta.

Red tape hinders Indonesia’s vaccination drive, even as cases surge

Dr Siti Nadia Tarmizi, the ministry’s Covid-19 spokeswoman, said the new patient was a 37-year-old male from Medan who had visited a restaurant in Jakarta’s central business district earlier this month.

The man had no recent history of overseas travel or contacts with international travellers, Tarmizi said, adding he was asymptomatic and was in isolation at a Jakarta hospital.

“With this one local transmission we will toughen mobility restrictions, especially during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays,” she said, adding the patient’s wife had tested negative for Omicron.

Meanwhile, Donald, the Medan businessman, said he has no regrets about receiving an illicit booster shot – and plans to get a fourth vaccine dose when he gets the chance.

“If I am vaccinated, I don’t feel scared. I feel like I won’t die of Covid-19. I believe that everyone will get the virus at some point and if I am vaccinated then my body will know how to deal with it,” he said.

“It is a positive thing. I would be terrified if I wasn’t vaccinated.”

Additional reporting by Reuters