Kenneth Yeung explains how it took a few attempts to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Indonesia.
In recent days, the foreign media has painted a nightmarish picture of Indonesia as the global epicentre of COVID-19 death, despair and overflowing hospitals. The Australian media, in particular, is reporting that its terrified citizens cannot get vaccinated in Indonesia and are stranded because no flights are available until next year.
I’m an Australian living in Indonesia. I’m not over 60, I’m not even over 50. I’m not a teacher and I’m not working for the embassy or any international development agencies – so I didn’t qualify for a vaccine when rollouts started in mid-January 2021. I managed to get my first shot of AstraZeneca free of charge by mid-June and my second shot is due in early September. I’m not panicking or trying to flee Indonesia. The lack of flights to Australia is because the Australian government has severely capped the number of arrivals, making it unfeasible for airlines to fly to Australia.
Many of Indonesia’s hospitals designated for the treatment of COVID-19 patients are indeed at capacity and facing oxygen shortages, but the non-COVID hospitals aren’t crowded or full – so people can be treated for non-COVID ailments ranging from a broken leg to tuberculosis.
In early March 2021, an American friend received his first Sinovac jab, arranged by his employer. Later that month, an English pal received his first shot because he was over 60 and worked as a teacher. Then a Canadian friend paid Rp1 million to get two jabs of Sinovac from a hospital in Depok. Many others had similar stories. And some expatriates don’t want to be vaccinated because they believe COVID-19 is a conspiracy.
Here’s how I got vaccinated in Jakarta.
A family friend instructed me to visit a certain public health clinic on the morning of April 3 and receive my first Sinovac shot, free of charge. One of the nurses was a friend of a relative and could get me on the list. Great. I arrived at 8am and received a number, 45 (of 200 shots being administered that morning). I filled out a form, had my blood pressure tested and the nurse complimented my good health. Most of those seated in the outdoor waiting area looked over 60 and some were frail. It wasn’t bustling with activity. I was the only foreigner.
After about one hour, my number was called. I went inside and handed over my form and my temporary residency visa. I also had my Indonesian driver’s license, my tax number card and my passport. The lady entering my data on a computer said there was a problem with my “NIK” (Nomor Induk Kependudukan, which can be poorly translated as National Identification Number). The only NIK I had was on my tax number card and it was a duplicate of my passport number. The lady told me to go back outside and keep waiting.
The queue thinned. A nurse mentioned that fewer than 200 people had showed up, so there were spare doses. Some people started calling younger family members, who soon arrived and were promptly registered and vaccinated. I kept waiting. After three hours, I was informed: “Sorry, we can’t register foreigners on the system.”. A wasted morning, but I was inured to disappointment. Then I had a message from the nurse – she could visit my house later that day and give me a vaccination. “Would I be registered?” No. In that case, perhaps foolishly, I declined.
By June, social media channels in Jakarta were inundated with flyers announcing free vaccinations at various locations at specified times and dates. There was also a widely-shared message offering two vaccinations for Rp1.65 million (US$115) by some profiteers using a Gmail address. I was keen for AstraZeneca, as it’s more internationally acceptable than Sinovac and considered more effective. But many claims were circulating about “dangerous side-effects” of AstraZeneca, so Jakarta had a glut of doses that needed to be used before expiration. I headed to a walk-in vaccination centre in Central Jakarta, joined a long queue and was eventually informed my NIK could not be entered into the system because I was a foreigner.
The ‘Didn’t Bother’ Attempt
After two knockbacks, I considered approaching the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, but then checked online and saw that Australia’s vaccination program “doesn’t include Australians overseas”. Australia does allow halfwit foreign “reality TV celebrities” and beloved cricket commentators to jump the queue of limited arrivals, but such privileges don’t seem to be extended to ordinary Australians. Not being a complete halfwit narcissist, I didn’t stand a chance.
Next, I asked my employer’s human resources director about the possibility of getting vaccinated through the company. He said they had received a limited number of doses and that full-time staff were given priority, and the next round of vaccinations, not due until September, were still only for full-timers. As a part-timer, I couldn’t rely on help from the office. That’s not entirely accurate. I asked about my NIK, which is part of the Residence Certificate (SKTT) issued for all foreign workers and usually held by their employer. Human resources sent me an image of my SKTT with an NIK different to the one on my tax card.
Armed with my proper NIK, I asked my Jakarta apartment’s management if they could assist me in getting a vaccination. “Yes, we can help,” said the lady. I didn’t get my hopes up. First, I had to produce proof of a year’s rental, some domicile letters signed and stamped by local officials, plus photocopies of various types of ID. Within a mere 24 hours, the apartment management had typed a short letter, confirming my identity and domicile, and recommending I be vaccinated against COVID-19. I was instructed to take the letter to the local “kantor lurah” – the urban village head’s office. There, the woman in charge of vaccinations informed me that all foreigners from my apartment were ineligible. “The vaccines are only for Indonesian people.”
Fifth Time Lucky
Upon leaving the lurah’s office, I walked through some crowded back streets to get to my local subdistrict Puskesmas – the Public Health Clinic. Hardly a mask in sight until I reached the clinic. A couple of friendly guards glanced at my letter and told me I could get vaccinated with AstraZeneca tomorrow morning – at a nearby state elementary school, which had been transformed into a vaccination centre. The guards advised me to be there at 7am sharp. I arrived at 6am, just to be first in line. Over the next hour, more people started showing up. The school gates remained locked. One rather haughty woman arrived in a vehicle with her driver and maid, looked at the crowd with disdain, and ordered her maid to get three numbers.
At 7:10am, a health vehicle arrived with three officials. One official walked to the school gates and held up a wad of 200 numbered squares of paper. He asked the crowd to form an orderly, socially distanced line. Many of them mobbed him, snatching for numbers. He shouted for order. They ignored him. I was pushed aside by the frenzied jostling. The official put the numbers back in his pocket and again yelled for order and distancing. He explained that it’s dangerous to crowd so closely during a pandemic. Begrudgingly, the mob formed a line that resembled an extended lineout tussle at a rugby match. I received number 35. Then came the maid, who asked for three numbers. “Only one number per person!” the official told her. Later, I observed the haughty lady return and berate the maid for getting only one number. She took the number and sent the maid and driver away to wait.
When all of the numbers had been handed out or snatched away, the gates were opened and we made our way to separated chairs in front of the school. The most senior-looking official spotted me and inquired where I was from. I told him and showed him my documents. He informed me that foreigners are ineligible. I politely countered that foreigners are eligible under the latest government policy. He didn’t tell me to leave. Soon my number was called. My details were taken down on paper, then I had to wait briefly in another queue for online registration, a blood pressure test and some perfunctory questions about allergies, illnesses, current medication. Then a very quick shot in the arm. Then to a classroom for confirmation processing and 15 minutes of observation. In groups of about six, people received their certificates, complete with a reminder to return for the second dose. Each person was given a tiny bag of two paracetamol tablets “to counter any side effects”. An official told us: “No coffee and no alcohol for the next three days. Come back in 12 weeks or slightly sooner.”
I had spent over an hour waiting for the vaccination centre to open, but the process itself took under an hour. The public health officials, in general, were wonderfully efficient and friendly, dealing politely with impatient people and answering all manner questions with a smile. A few hours after being vaccinated, I experienced mild fatigue and a headache; possibly just a consequence of a long week. I took the paracetamols and was fine by the following afternoon.
Most of my non-Indonesian friends and acquaintances here have also been vaccinated and are taking sensible precautions while going about their business. Many of those on extended tourist visas (now converted to B211 sociocultural visas) in Bali have been vaccinated with two shots of AstraZeneca, free of charge, at local health clinics because they are in a tourism green zone. “I think the Indonesian authorities have been pretty accommodating. We are really grateful for how we were treated here,” said a South African, who lives in Bali and was vaccinated free of charge along with his Australian partner.
An economist named Jackie Pomeroy has long been running a Facebook page that provides advice on how and where to be vaccinated in Bali. Thanks to her efforts, many foreigners have been vaccinated free of charge. But that doesn’t make for very sensational news for foreign journalists intent on portraying Indonesia as a disaster zone with a collapsed healthcare system.
The maxim that “anything is possible in Indonesia” is true. With the right attitude and some perseverance, a vaccination is not impossible. Certainly, getting a flight from Jakarta to Australia presently entails great expense and flying multiple routes and stopovers. But that’s Australia’s fault, not Indonesia’s problem.
Just because many foreigners in Indonesia have already been vaccinated, thanks to the government, that doesn’t mean that every foreigner here will also be so fortunate. Let us know in the comments if you’re still facing difficulties.