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Jakarta will fine people who refuse COVID vaccines. Will it work?

by Beh Lih Yi | @BehLihYi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 23 February 2021 13:38 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A health care worker prepares a dose of China's Sinovac Biotech vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a mass vaccination for vendors at the Tanah Abang textile market in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 17, 2021. REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/File Photo

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The city of Jakarta has taken the rare step of announcing fines and welfare penalties for anyone who refuses to get a COVID-19 vaccine, raising fears of inequalities

Millions of people in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, will face a hefty fine or the loss of social aid if they refuse COVID-19 vaccines, an unusual penalty that followed the country's decision to make inoculation mandatory.

As Indonesia fights one of Asia's worst coronavirus outbreaks, Jakarta residents who decline vaccination will be punished with a fine of up to 5 million rupiah ($355), city authorities said last week.

It is believed to be one of the first cities or countries to impose penalties over COVID-19 vaccination.

Jakarta, a sprawling metropolis that is home to more than 10 million people, accounts for about a quarter of Indonesia's more than 1.2 million coronavirus infections.

Here are some details about the controversial plan:

Why the fine and will it work?

The fine is a last resort aimed at making people comply with the national regulations on mandatory inoculations, according to Jakarta Deputy Governor Ahmad Riza Patria.

The announcement followed a presidential order earlier this month which said anyone who refuses vaccination could be denied social assistance, access to government services or be fined. It was left up to local authorities to define the exact penalties.

But health experts said Jakarta should consider public education, or other incentives, before imposing fines.

"Indonesia should have this approach and not jump into the last option, which is coercive," said Febi Dwirahmadi, an Indonesian expert on global health who teaches at Australia's Griffith University, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Who is most likely to be fined?

Rights campaigners fear the penalty plan could take a heavier toll on vulnerable groups, such as the poor and those without access to health information, who tend to be more reluctant about getting the COVID-19 vaccination.

"It could lead to inequality, especially when they don't receive enough information. People have to make up their own mind but they have to be well-informed first," Dwirahmadi said.

Nearly one in 10 Indonesians live below the national poverty line, on around $1 a day, World Bank data shows.

Ari Pramuditya, a researcher with rights group Amnesty International in Indonesia, said mandatory vaccination with the threat of fines violated human rights.

"Instead of scaring the public with criminal sanctions, the government should focus on disseminating transparent, complete and accurate information related to vaccines," he said.

Why are Indonesians sceptical about COVID-19 vaccines?

A survey showed only 37% Indonesians were willing to be vaccinated, 40% were undecided and 17% would refuse, according to a poll of more than 1,200 people by Indonesian polling firm Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting in December.

The high rates of vaccine hesitancy comes as the government aims to inoculate 181.5 million of the country's 270 million people within 15 months under a vaccination programme that started in January.

Doubts are mainly linked to whether the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and whether it is permissible by Islam. Nearly 90% of Indonesians are Muslims.

"Social trust is absent," Dwirahmadi said. "People are still questioning whether this is safe for the elderly, or pregnant women ... They have to build trust."

Are any other places planning similar punishments?

Countries that already have rules or punishments for people who refuse other mandatory vaccinations have said they plan to make COVID-19 inoculation voluntary.

That includes Australia, which has a "no jab, no pay" policy that withholds several state payments related to child care and tax benefit for parents of children under 20 who are not fully immunised. It has said COVID-19 vaccines will be voluntary.

Imposing fines could lead to administrative headaches such as enforcement and possible legal challenges, health researcher Dimas Iqbal Romadhon at the University of Washington wrote.

Meanwhile, wealthier people could opt to pay the fine to skirt the vaccination rules, he added.

Related stories:

Indonesia launches one of world's biggest COVID-19 vaccination drives

Coronavirus vaccine passports: What you need to know

Can my employer make me get a COVID-19 vaccine?

 ($1 = 14,090.0000 rupiah)

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)