Australian families stranded in Indonesia warn their children are “sitting ducks” as the Delta variant of COVID-19 tears through the country.
Children account for one in eight confirmed cases in the world’s fourth-most populous nation, which has become the global epicentre of the pandemic.
More than 700 children, half of them under the age of five, have died as a result of COVID-19 according to the Indonesian Paediatric Society.
It is a pandemic child mortality rate greater than that of any other country.
For those Australians stranded in Indonesia, the surge of the Delta variant is terrifying.
Sophie Layton and her husband have lived in Bali, running a business, for a decade.
They have been trying to return to Australia with their two children, China, 13, and Lucian, 10, since February.
“The situation here with respect to COVID is dire,” Sophie says.
University of Queensland virologist Kirsty Short says there is no reliable data available to explain the high rate of paediatric COVID-19 cases and deaths in Indonesia.
Dr Short says while many people are “quick to blame” the Delta variant, she says the evidence is unclear.
“Data from the UK suggests the Delta variant is potentially more virulent in adults, so is it across all age groups?
“It’s a possibility, but there’s not any convincing evidence for that. It’s too early to understand.
“If I was a parent in Indonesia, I’d be concerned about any variant,” she says.
Heed the lessons of India
Australia’s halving of overseas arrivals in early July and a ban by Singapore on Indonesian flights has left Australians stranded in Indonesia with few options.
They are calling on the federal government to organise repatriation flights.
Around 780 Australians in Indonesia are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as wanting to return, with approximately 350 considered vulnerable.
The government has said that help is on the way.
“As part of its ongoing global program to assist Australians seeking to return to Australia, the Australian government is considering options to assist registered Australians in Indonesia to return,” a DFAT spokesman said in a written response.
Sophie Layton is urging the government to heed the lessons of India’s devastating COVID-19 outbreak.
“[Indonesia] is the global epicentre and we have the experience of India to learn from [about] how bad things can get and how quickly they can escalate,” she says.
Such is the desperation, a group of more than 200 expats have banded together to try to arrange a charter flight to Australia
Sophie’s family was among them but recently pulled out because of the escalating cost.
Sydney couple Josh and Cat Sanders are also desperate to return home with their nine-year-old son Zac, who has autism.
They relocated from Sydney to Jakarta for work in January 2020 and have been trying to get a flight back to Australia since May this year.
Josh Sanders is fearful as rising cases in Indonesia are causing the country’s health system to buckle.
“It’s exceptionally stressful,” Josh says.
His son Zac has not attended school in person for over a year.
“He’s already got some social development issues and my fear for him is that he hasn’t played with another child his age since the beginning of last year,” Josh says.
“It’s really, really sad and I don’t know what the long-term repercussions are going to be.”
“That’s the key reason why [we decided to come home].
Calls for government to provide vaccines to trapped Australians
It is not only families terrified about being trapped in Indonesia during this outbreak.
Seventy-year-old Michael Walden travelled to Jakarta for business in February 2020 and has been trapped there for 15 months. He has had four flights home cancelled.
When his 12-month business visa expired, Michael was required to apply for a tourist visa, making him ineligible for Indonesia’s vaccine program.
“It’s actually terrifying because I am in a high-risk category,” Michael says.
“I have been running myself ragged and I cannot get a vaccination anywhere.”
Michael is among those calling for the Australian government to provide vaccines through its assistance missions in Indonesia, something the French government is doing for its citizens.
“I can understand delays and difficulties in repatriation [but] I’m asking that they take care and ensure that there’s adequate vaccines available for the expats abroad,” Michael says.
DFAT says the Australian government’s vaccine policy “does not include rollout for Australian citizens overseas. We encourage Australians overseas to consult their local health professional for advice on vaccine options.”
Jakarta-based Australian interpreter Amelia Lemondhi says vaccines are scarce.
Her husband Mondi tested positive to COVID-19 a week ago and she is symptomatic.
The Sydney couple moved to Indonesia in 2018 and have been trying to return home since May.
With Indonesia’s health system struggling to manage the COVID-19 caseload and many hospitals running out of oxygen, she is worried about their safety.
“My concern is hearing stories of sudden onset pneumonia and what happens at day 10 as the virus progresses,” she says.
“Recently we had a friend who was hospitalised with COVID and died with complications from pneumonia, and she was in her early 40s.”
The couple wants to be able to return home once they test negative.
“I’m definitely concerned. I’d like to know that we have the medical options that we should have,” Amelia says.
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