Death of senior doctor rings alarm bells in pandemic-struck Indonesia

By Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Stanley Widianto
·4-min read
Senior Indonesian doctor Sardjono Utomo and his wife, who died from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) after they were turned away from hospitals in Surabaya, are pictured

By Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Stanley Widianto

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Dr Sardjono Utomo, a senior Indonesian doctor, admitted himself to his local hospital in East Java late Tuesday afternoon.

In just over 24 hours, as his fellow medics phoned hospital after hospital in search of a ventilator in Surabaya – Indonesia’s second-largest city and a few hours’ drive away – the doctor and his wife, Sri Martini, would both be dead from COVID-19.

Their deaths have raised alarm bells in the world’s fourth-most populated nation, where the steadily worsening pandemic is putting significant strain on a poorly equipped health system.

In the past 10 days, Indonesia has posted four daily record high numbers, the highest was Dec. 3 with 8,369 new cases, while local news has run headlines of more regional hospitals reaching full capacity.

"It seems like the current overcapacity situation is the worst it has been throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in Indonesia," Halik Malik, spokesman for the Indonesian Medical Association, told Reuters.

Public health experts say Indonesia has struggled since March to get the pandemic under control, now with 563,680 cases and 17,479 confirmed deaths – plus another nearly 70,000 suspected cases – it has by far the highest caseload and death toll in Southeast Asia, and the data shows the crisis is intensifying.

Indonesia daily COVID-19 deaths https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/INDONESIA/xlbvgzqlepq/chart.png

In Pamekasan, a modest district on Madura island bordered by the Java Sea where Dr Sardjono worked for years as a hospital director, there is not a single ventilator.

So when the 67-year-old radiologist arrived at Pamekasan’s Mohammad Noer Hospital in desperate need of one he was out of luck.

"Everywhere was full. And everything is full here in Pamekasan," said Dr Syaiful Hidayat, a pulmonologist who treated Dr Sardjono. "Now it is peaking."

Dr Sardjono’s son-in-law, 41-year-old Arif Rahman, said the deaths of his in-laws highlighted how ill-equipped the nation’s hospitals were to handle the pandemic.

"Ventilators are important," he said. "In Pamekasan, which is a referral (area) for other regions, it is of course pitiful. Let alone in other places like Surabaya, where it is always full."

Asked why Dr Sardjono could not find a ventilator, Febriadhitya Prajatara, Surabaya government spokesman, said they had tried too late and the city was not to blame.

The city’s ICU capacity, he said, was at 66%.

But across Java, the most populated island on the planet, other worrying signs are emerging.

West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil said Wednesday the occupancy rate for isolation rooms in Bogor, Depok, Bekasi and Bandung had reached 80%.

In the capital Jakarta, there is also cause for concern.

LaporCOVID-19, an independent coronavirus data initiative, warned this week that Jakarta’s emergency wards were veering toward "collapse".

In helping coronavirus patients find hospital beds from November 27-29, LaporCOVID-19 contacted emergency wards at 69 hospitals and discovered that 97% were full.

"The overcapacity of ICUs in referral hospitals for COVID-19 in some areas indicates the government's handling of the pandemic is less than serious," said Irma Hidayana, the initiative’s cofounder.

Data from the Jakarta government shows that isolation beds at 98 referral hospitals were 79% full, while ICU beds were 74% full as of November 29.

Indonesia’s COVID-19 taskforce, the National Hospital Association and the Jakarta Health Office, did not provide more recent data when asked by Reuters.

However, speaking in a press briefing Thursday, taskforce spokesman Wiku Adisasmito, said ICU beds were 57.97% full nationally as of December 1. Some 1,315 portable ventilators had also been distributed to the regions, he said.

But for Dr Sardjono, one of more than 180 Indonesian doctors who have died from the virus, that made no difference.

Asked why a senior doctor was unable to receive the treatment he needed, Dr Syaiful said there was just not enough room.

"Who do you want to kick out?" he asked. "You can’t do that. It shows that COVID is here and it is real... It can happen to anyone and we won’t have enough beds."

(Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Michael Perry)