Medan, Indonesia – Indonesia officially kicks off its vaccine booster programme on Wednesday, with free jabs for the elderly and those without the means to pay, according to the Ministry of Health.
But the decision to make the majority of Indonesia’s 270 million inhabitants pay for the boosters out of their own pockets has fuelled controversy.
“Why has the government suddenly come up with the idea of boosters? If it is because the government is worried about waning antibodies, then it is OK as that is relative to the pandemic,” Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Indonesia, told Al Jazeera.
“But if it is related to the pandemic, then the vaccines should be free.”
The government has yet to confirm how much the vaccine booster shots will cost, although estimates have circulated online using data from the UNICEF Vaccine Market Dashboard, which lists the price of vaccines across different countries.
Potential prices range from as low as $2.75 for a shot of AstraZeneca to $23 for a Pfizer booster.
“There is talk that the vaccines will be around 300,000 Indonesian rupiah ($21) but in practice, they could potentially charge more in a private clinic so the price could go up to to 1 or 2 million ($70-140) per shot,” Alexander Arifianto, a research fellow at the Indonesia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore told Al Jazeera.
“Putting a price tag on the booster will add to vaccine hesitancy. The more it costs, the more people will be hesitant to have it.”
Most people have been given the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine after Indonesia participated in the manufacturer’s late-stage trials.
There are also large discrepancies in vaccine coverage between different areas of the archipelago.
Populations in Jakarta and Bali are almost fully vaccinated, while areas such as Aceh and West Papua have managed to vaccinate only about 20 percent of residents, according to data from the Ministry of Health.
“I’m not sure that the paid vaccine programme is going to help Indonesia reach a large number of people. With less than 50 percent of [all] Indonesians fully vaccinated, the government needs to encourage the rest of the population to get vaccinated first,” said Arifianto.
With so many people still awaiting the all-important first shots, “Indonesia will continue to be vulnerable”, he said.
He adds that while expecting people to pay out of pocket for the booster is a serious concern, a more pressing problem for the government is sourcing the necessary vaccines.
“Middle-income nations like Indonesia have struggled to get vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer because [the makers of those vaccines] have prioritised countries that can pay upfront quickly,” he said.
When the booster scheme was announced early this month, Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin told the media that Indonesia would need 230 million doses of booster shots and that it currently had roughly half that number in stock. It is unclear where Indonesia is planning to source the additional shots.