As governments around the world work to inoculate their population against the novel coronavirus, one country has made a controversial move with its vaccine rollout.
Indonesia’s capital Jakarta is threatening residents with fines of up to 5 million rupiahs (A$460) for refusing Covid-19 vaccines, an unusually stiff penalty aimed at ensuring compliance with a new regulation-making the jabs mandatory.
The country has been one of the hardest hit in southeast Asia with nearly 34,000 Indonesians known to have died from the virus in the past 12 months.
But the move to make the vaccine compulsory by handing out harsh fines – which appears to be a world first – and even limiting government assistance for those who don't comply has raised eyebrows, with human rights groups calling it "a clear violation".
A medical officer prepares a SinoVac COVID-19 vaccine for Indonesian traders at Tanah Abang market in Jakarta, Indonesia on February 17. Source: Getty
Deputy Jakarta governor Ahmad Riza Patria said city authorities were merely following rules and such sanctions were a last resort in Jakarta, which accounts for about a quarter of the archipelago nation’s more than 1.2 million coronavirus infections.
“If you reject it, there are two things, social aid will not be given, (and a) fine,” he told reporters.
Indonesia is fighting one of Asia’s biggest and most stubborn pandemic waves and aims to inoculate 181.5 million of its 270 million population within 15 months under a vaccination program that began last month.
The country announced a presidential order earlier this month stipulating anyone who refuses vaccines could be denied social assistance or government services or made to pay a fine.
The penalty would be determined by regional health agencies or by local governments.
The archipelago nation has racked up more than 1.2 million coronavirus infections. Source: OurWorldinData
“Sanctions are our last effort to encourage people’s participation,” Health Ministry official Siti Nadia Tarmizi said.
“The target of 181.5 million people is huge.”
The new regulation follows months of public skepticism and lingering doubts about whether coronavirus vaccines are safe, effective, and halal, or permissible by Islam.
Public health experts say public jitters about the vaccine could be a stumbling block. However, health agencies in West Java, Indonesia’s most populous province, and West Nusa Tenggara told Reuters they had no plans to enforce sanctions against vaccine dissenters.
A December survey by pollster Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting showed only 37 percent of 1202 respondents were willing to be vaccinated, 40 percent were undecided and 17 percent would refuse.
A number of traders are lining up to get the Covid-19 vaccine at Tanah Abang Market, Central Jakarta City. Source: Getty
By comparison, 73 percent of Australians said they would get a Covid-19 vaccine according to a recent survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
However, the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian stopped short on Friday of ruling out making the vaccine compulsory under a Public Health Order.
“I’m completely happy and comfortable for there to be incentives for people to take the vaccine. I think that’s a positive way to do it rather than penalise people who don’t take the vaccine,” she told reporters.
According to Bloomberg’s global Covid-19 vaccine tracker, more than 193 million doses have already been administered across 87 different countries. In Australia, the first jabs are set to be delivered to frontline healthcare workers on Monday.
When it comes to encouraging vaccine uptake, Indonesia's reliance on the stick rather than the carrot has drawn criticism.
Usman Hamid, a director at Amnesty International Indonesia, said enforcing vaccinations were not the answer.
“A blanket mandate on vaccination, especially one that includes criminal penalties, is a clear violation of human rights,” he said
Online some labelled the move "astonishing" while others used it to stoke anti-vaxxer conspiracy ideas.