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Opposition to pandemic vaccine threatens Indonesia's recovery

Public suspicion is still strong despite reassurances from political and religious leaders

Opposition to pandemic vaccine threatens Indonesia's recovery

A medical worker administers a Covid-19 vaccine during a vaccination drive targeting ride-hailing drivers and frontline hospitality workers in Nusa Dua on Indonesia's resort island of Bali on March 1. (Photo: AFP)

Indonesia’s Covid-19 vaccination plans are being undermined by millions of citizens refusing to be vaccinated, though most of them won’t say it publicly for fear of being targeted by the government.

The country’s vaccination program began in January soon after the government secured millions of Chinese-made Sinovac doses.

The government claims the Chinese vaccine was superior to others, had a low side-effect risk — less than one percent — and could be stored relatively easily when compared to the Pfizer vaccine that requires being kept at -70C.
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However, people immediately had doubts about a Chinese vaccine and others questioned whether religious ethics were being followed.

For Indonesian Catholics,  this shouldn’t be a big issue as Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to get vaccinated, even though the Pfizer and Moderna ones have used cell lines taken from the tissue of aborted fetuses.

That is acceptable if there is no other alternative, the Vatican has said.

The pope himself showed the way by being inoculated on Jan.14.

But many Indonesians, particularly Muslims, are hesitant despite President Joko Widodo volunteering to be the first recipient to show that the vaccine is safe.

The government wants to inoculate over 40 million citizens by April, mainly government and health workers, political and religious figures and those considered most vulnerable to the virus.

It’s hoped herd immunity will be achieved by year-end.

Indonesia was hailed for the speed at which it secured millions of doses while much of the rest of the world is still struggling to get them.

According to UNICEF, 130 countries have yet to obtain a single dose, prompting the Vatican to urge the easing of patent protection and fair distribution of vaccines. Last week Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, Vatican permanent observer to the UN, warned about the risk of prioritizing vaccines for the richest countries.

However, many Indonesians have turned their backs on Jakarta’s efforts.

A Ministry of Health survey in November revealed the most common reasons for rejecting the Covid-19 vaccine were due to doubts over safety and effectiveness and religious reasons.

A survey by pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia said on Feb. 21 that 41 percent of Indonesians did not want to be vaccinated.

This is a worry for the government because such a high number threatens its herd immunity plans and the implementation economic recovery programs.

Public distrust of the vaccines grew stronger recently when a top politician warned the government might make getting the jab compulsory.

It prompted a Catholic layman and former human rights commissioner from Papua to urge the government not to impose vaccinations on people.

The government has invested heavily and has allocated a large sum to fight the pandemic, including about 134 trillion rupiah (US$9.5 billion) for the vaccines. It will do whatever it takes to make sure all its efforts bear fruit, even if it means forcing everyone to receive the vaccines and punishing those who resist.

But jailing people for a year or fines of up to $7,000 under a health law can be avoided if more politicians and religious leaders stepped forward and offered more gentle persuasion.

Politicians from all sides can promote the advantages of having the vaccination as can religious leaders since they are highly respected figures who exert a great deal of influence.

Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas said the government is once again turning to religious leaders for support in this regard. He said part of this effort is to vaccinate thousands of religious leaders including Catholic bishops, priests and nuns.

The government hopes the vaccination of about 4,000 religious leaders at the Istiqlal Grand Mosque in Jakarta last week will send a message to their followers that vaccinations are important for everyone and necessary in the fight against Covid-19.

Qoumas said his ministry wants to vaccinate at least 10,000 religious leaders as part of this effort.

Indonesian bishops have told Catholics to look upon receiving the Covid-19 vaccination as helping defend the country.

The bishops’ executive secretary for interfaith cooperation, Father Agustinus Heri Wibowo, who was one of the first to receive a shot at the presidential palace in January, says Catholics should not refuse to be vaccinated as it is the only effective way to overcome Covid-19.

Medical experts, government officials, religious leaders and those who have received the vaccine all say it is safe and not against any religious principles. The biggest fear should be contracting the virus or passing it onto someone else.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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