Indonesia records its lowest rate of positive coronavirus tests

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Students wearing protective masks stand in line to receive a vaccine dose against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) during a mass vaccination program for students at the Tangerang City Government Center on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, September 2, 2021. Antara Foto/Fauzan/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT.

JAKARTA, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Indonesia’s daily coronavirus positivity rate dropped below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) benchmark standard of 5% this week for the first time, an indicator the country’s devastating second wave could be easing.

The positivity rate, or the proportion of people tested who are positive, peaked at 33.4% in July when Indonesia became Asia’s coronavirus epicentre, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant.

On Monday that rate fell to 4.57%, the lowest since March 2020, when Indonesia’s first cases were reported, according to independent data initiative, Kawal COVID-19.

A rate above 5% indicates coronvirus is out of control, the WHO says.

Kawal co-founder Elina Ciptadi said the trend was a good sign, although she cautioned that official data could not capture a dearth of underreported cases and deaths.

“All in all, what we are seeing is encouraging,” she said.

Since its July peak, the average positivity rate has fallen steadily, from 23.8% in the first week of August to 11.3% in the final week of that month, to 6.2% on average so far in September

Coronavirus restrictions were eased further on Monday, with most areas on Java island downgraded, allowing conditional operation of malls, factories and restaurants.

But President Joko Widodo urged Indonesians not to be complacent.

“People need to realise that COVID is always lurking,” he said. “When our guards are down, (cases) can increase again.”

Epidemiologist Dicky Budiman from Australia’s Griffith University said testing and tracing efforts remain weak.

“I’m both happy and worried about the decline,” he said. “There were efforts from the government, but not strong enough to get us out of the crisis period,” he said, adding improvements were mostly in big cities.

Weekly health ministry data last week shows several provinces still recording high positivity rates, with Aceh at 17.4% and North Kalimantan at 16.7%.

COVID-19 task force spokesperson Wiku Adisasmito said the government would keep improving its testing and tracing capability.

“We’re hoping this good condition can be upheld,” he added.

Reporting by Stanley Widianto; Editing by Martin Petty

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Indonesia eases COVID curbs across Java, with tourism set to reopen

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JAKARTA – Tourist sites in Java will reopen gradually and diners can stay for an hour in a restaurant under the latest easing of COVID-19 mobility restrictions that take effect Tuesday across the densely populated Indonesian island.

The government said only small parts of Java – where over half of Indonesia’s 270 million people live – remain under the strictest PPKM Level 4 emergency curbs, reflecting continued declines in coronavirus cases and deaths in recent weeks after a surge driven by the delta variant.

But the island of Bali, a magnet for international tourists, is likely to remain at Level 4 for another week, a government official said.

Yogyakarta Province, a major tourist destination in the heart of Java, is joining Jakarta and other major metropolitan areas on the island in having relaxed curbs.

“But [President Joko Widodo] has underlined that the pandemic has not ended. The virus isn’t likely to disappear completely. We can only try to control its spread,” Airlangga Hartarto, Indonesia’s chief economic minister, told a virtual press briefing Monday evening. “So please remain alert despite the declines in cases. They’re not evenly distributed, and the situation is still dynamic.”

Dining in at restaurants previously was allowed for a maximum of 30 minutes, though enforcement has been lax outside greater Jakarta. Restaurants will continue to operate at half capacity.

The latest easing follows partial reopening of schools that began last week, as well as longer operating hours for malls and traditional markets where visitors are screened using a smartphone app showing their vaccination status.

Indonesia’s confirmed new infections averaged 7,700 daily during the past seven days, down roughly half from the previous week and far below the country’s record of over 50,000 daily cases in mid-July. The death toll also has fallen to fewer than 600 per day in the past week.

On Monday, Southeast Asia’s largest economy reported 4,413 new cases and 612 new deaths, bringing its total to over 4.1 million infections with 136,473 fatalities.

But concerns remain for regions outside Java, including the resort island of Bali, where hospital occupancy rates for COVID-19 patients are still high, the government said.

“We estimate that Bali needs another week to see [its curbs] down to Level 4,” said Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the chief coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment.

Indonesia on Monday welcomed the arrival of 5 million doses of Sinovac’s vaccine, bringing the total doses of coronavirus vaccines the country has received to 225.4 million. The majority of the doses are from Sinovac, with smaller portions from AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.

As of Monday, 59% of Jakarta’s nearly 11 million residents have been fully vaccinated, but the national average is lower at 14%.

Hartarto said Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi, has instructed that inoculations be accelerated in the remote Papua Province, which hosts Indonesia’s National Games next month, as well as other provinces where vaccination is especially low – including Aceh, West Sumatra, South Kalimantan and Southeast Sulawesi.

Did Indonesia Dodge a Bullet With Its Renewable Energy Feed-in-Tariffs?

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There are many policy tools governments can use to encourage the adoption of renewable energies. One is a carbon tax, which tries to set a ceiling on emissions by taxing them. You also have cap and trade schemes, where emissions are capped through regulatory limits and the market can decide the price for an exemption. Lately, there’s been a move toward sustainable investment, with green bonds and ESG ratings intended to influence investor behavior. We can debate how effective these tools are, but what they have in common is the assumption that well-regulated and competitive markets can be leveraged in some form or fashion to reduce emissions.

In many countries, however, markets don’t function very well. Regulatory oversight is weak, governance is poor and uncertainty is high. In such situations, private companies may be reluctant to invest in renewable energy projects because the market is too volatile and they don’t feel like the investment is safe. One of the more popular fixes in recent times has been a policy tool called a feed-in-tariff, which is when a utility enters into a long-term contract with a renewable energy developer and agrees to purchase power from them at a fixed and often above-market price.

These contracts typically run for 20 to 30 years, so the idea is that reluctant developers can be induced to invest in solar and wind power when they otherwise might not because the feed-in-tariff provides certainty and guarantees a healthy return over many years. Feed-in-tariffs are often backed by government guarantees and, if not negotiated carefully, can be settled in U.S. dollars, which exposes the utilities entering into these deals to big foreign exchange liabilities should the local currency experience any volatility.

The trade-off here is that the state essentially shoulders a lot of the investor risk, and in exchange they get investment that they might not otherwise get in renewable energies like solar, wind and biomass gasification. Feed-in-tariffs, when designed and implemented well, have been shown to work. In this paper, I showed that while it is clear that the Philippines was able to induce significant investment in solar and wind power using feed-in-tariffs, Indonesia, using the same policy tool, had almost no success.

When I wrote the paper several years ago, I was pretty critical of Indonesia’s efforts. The country’s policy framework changed constantly, and involved local content requirements that led to drawn-out court battles. Moreover, feed-in-tariffs often involve higher operating costs for the utility and the Indonesian government really dislikes passing such costs through to customers, which makes the entire model somewhat unviable (this is related to why water privatization had more staying power in Manila than Jakarta). So even when Indonesia’s state-owned utility PLN offered a very high feed-in-tariff for solar power, there were no takers.

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Ironically, it turns out this might have been a blessing in disguise. With feed-in-tariffs, the state is basically guaranteeing it will offtake power at a set price for 20 or 30 years. But the cost of solar has dropped so much in recent years that utilities which entered into feed-in-tariff agreements at prices that made since in 2015 are now locked into overpaying for solar power for the next three decades. By bungling the implementation of feed-in-tariffs several years ago, PLN has more or less avoided such a fate and saved itself some money.

But from a bigger picture perspective, this also calls into question the logic of feed-in-tariffs in general. Is it really a good idea to structure these contracts so that risk which should belong to private investors is being shifted onto states, a phenomenon Professor Daniela Gabor has termed the “de-risking state.” Sure, sometimes the state needs to offer private capital some reassurances otherwise there may be no investment at all. The question is where to draw the line. That’s not an easy question to answer but at least in Indonesia PLN kind of accidentally found the right balance, even if it did so by stumbling around in the dark.