SINGAPORE: On the surface, it looked like Indonesia got a boost in its vaccination efforts.
A company-funded COVID-19 vaccination programme for employed workers and their families was rolled out last week.
More than 22,000 firms have registered around 10 million workers and their families to participate in this program, which will proceed in parallel with the ongoing government-funded inoculation programme that began in January.
AN ACCIDENTAL PROGRAMME
While highly lauded, this company-funded programme was interestingly an accidental one.
The Indonesian government had previously only planned for two vaccination tracks: The government-funded national track that prioritised health workers, senior citizens and public servants and a self-funded programme (Vaksin Mandiri) for people willing and able to pay for their own vaccines, announced in December 2020.
The understanding was that those who could afford their own vaccines should not be subsidised at the expense of tight public coffers.
But this self-funded approach drew criticism, especially from epidemiologists who argued on the basis of vaccine equity that life-saving vaccine doses should be free for all and that people should not be deprived from taking the jab.
They further argued that such a programme would only benefit the wealthy who can jump the queue ahead of Indonesians who might find paying for the vaccine to be a barrier.
This would come at a cost to reaching a national goal of herd immunity that requires 67 per cent of Indonesian population (181.5 million of people) to be vaccinated.
Instead, looking at how healthcare and the state of the economy have been closely intertwined, epidemiologists and economists proposed the government encourage companies to channel their corporate social responsibility efforts to finance vaccination drives for their workers.
A PUSH FROM THE TOP
Amid this debate, President Joko Widodo met some business players in January, and asked the business community to help spur government’s drive to attain herd immunity by March 2022.
The president proposed this be done through an initiative termed the Mutual Cooperation Vaccination Programme (Vaksinasi Gotong Royong).
Companies would fund vaccination for their workers. They could also include communities that live around the company’s operations in rural areas.
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State-owned pharmaceutical firm PT Bio Farma would assemble vaccine ingredients into final products, distribute the vaccines to private clinics or health centres, where such vaccination drives are carried out.
The uptake has been healthy despite the huge organisational challenge involved in registering workers’ personal and health details with the Indonesia Chamber of Commerce (KADIN) and other government agencies.
There is also a general consensus that the programme is an important strategy in Indonesia’s multi-prong approach to get as many essential private sector workers vaccinated as possible, reinstate enterprise operations and aid the ailing economy.
Doing so would complement the national vaccination drive that prioritises essential public service workers and the vulnerable.
To avoid overlaps and confusion between the two, the Gotong Royong programme would use Sinopharm, while the government’s free-vaccine programme would use Sinovac and Astrazeneca.
LIMITATIONS OF THE PRIVATE VACCINATION PROGRAMME
However, as much as Gotong Royong is to be welcomed, it is unlikely to be the game-changer in Indonesia’s vaccination drive.
The price of vaccines for this programme is too expensive for micro, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSME) at Rp 321,660 (US$22.40) and an administration fee of Rp 117,910 (US$8.21), already at caps set by the government.
This is a significant amount of money for enterprises that usually employ between 10 and 300 people, and whose yearly revenues range between Rp 300 million (SGD$ 20,900) and Rp 50 billion (US$ 3.48 million).
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Many such enterprises in Tangerang city, Banten province, for example, reportedly chose not to participate in the programme due to the vaccine’s high price. This is concerning because some 64 million or 99.99 percent of businesses in Indonesia are such MSMEs that employ 117 million workers, according to 2018 data.
Without government assistance, the uptake of Gotong Royong is not likely to increase sharply.
Indeed, the government too estimates that only 12.5 million company workers will participate in the company-funded vaccination programme in total - just 6.8 percent of total Indonesian population, a drop in the ocean of a 67 per cent target set to be achieved in the 15-month timeframe.
This data also shows that many workers will miss out on the Gotong Royong programme since the 12.5 million workers form a mere 10.7 percent of total 117 million of employed workers in Indonesia. They will have to wait until the national programme reaches them.
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SUPPLIES REMAIN LIMITED
Still, the biggest limiting factor may be less the expensive price of vaccines than the slow pace of vaccine supplies.
In early April this year, the government announced that an estimated 35 million doses of vaccine of a mix of Sinopharm, CanSino and Sputnik V vaccines are scheduled to ship to Indonesia between April and December this year.
But in May, the chairman of Indonesia’s Association of Employers (APINDO), Hariyadi Sukamdani, warned against the slow provision of vaccines for Gotong Royong.
He has a point. Even President Joko Widodo is not convinced all purchased doses of vaccine would arrive on time.
He admitted on May 18 that while Indonesia had ordered some 30 million doses for this programme, it had only obtained 420,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccines after fierce competition with other countries.
Indonesia is also awaiting some 5 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine to be delivered sometime between April and July this year but confirmation of their arrival has not been forthcoming as of this past week.
So while the Gotong Royong programme can help protect sizable numbers of people from the coronavirus, it faces huge limitations.
Instead, Indonesia should relook the option of subsidising the vaccines for MSMEs and how to unlock more vaccine supplies.
A'an Suryana is a Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.