Indonesia is using an unusual metric to help determine who is at the front of the queue in its coronavirus vaccination programme: likes and followers on Instagram and YouTube.
The country is prioritising healthcare and public service workers as it embarks on the biggest mass inoculation drive of CoronaVac, the shot developed by Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac, outside mainland China.
But it is also giving preference to social media influencers in the hope that, as they broadcast their vaccinations to millions of social media followers, it will help persuade a sceptical public.
Raffi Ahmad, a television personality with almost 50m Instagram followers, received the jab on live TV alongside President Joko Widodo last week. Ariel, the lead singer of pop-rock band Noah, Herru Joko, president of a West Java football club, and Risa Saraswati, a singer and writer, also received the shot.
“We hope they can help in their way of educating the public and set an example that vaccinations are safe and important,” said the Indonesian health ministry.
South-east Asia’s largest economy has struggled to manage the pandemic, with almost 900,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, the highest in the region. The country reported a record of new daily infections on Saturday and the government hopes a mass vaccination drive will help bring the health crisis under control.
But many Indonesians are wary of the jab. A survey carried out in October by LaporCovid-19, a citizen data initiative, showed that 69 per cent of about 2,100 Indonesian respondents were uncertain about taking the vaccine.
Critics of the government’s approach said using social media stars was unlikely to shift perceptions, particularly after Mr Raffi was seen gathering with friends without masks after being inoculated.
Mr Raffi posted an apology video on his Instagram page following the incident. The health ministry said it regretted the matter and had reprimanded him.
“It’s just a waste of vaccines,” said Irma Hidayana, co-founder of LaporCovid-19, who added the government would have had no record of Mr Raffi’s behaviour during the pandemic.
The group’s survey showed that only about 1 per cent of respondents trusted celebrities for information about Covid-19, with most people having greater faith in public health experts, epidemiologists and the government.
Questions have also been raised about the government’s reliance on CoronaVac. Brazilian health officials said last week that clinical trials had found the Sinovac vaccine had demonstrated an efficacy rate of 50.4 per cent, significantly lower than those of the jabs produced by BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca.
Based on the Brazilian data, Indonesia would need to inoculate its entire population of 270m, rather than just 60 or 70 per cent with a vaccine offering higher efficacy, to achieve herd immunity.
“That’s impossible,” said Pandu Riono, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Indonesia. “If we stick to the idea of using Sinovac, it means we delay the control of the pandemic based on [using a] vaccine”.
Indonesia’s food and drug authority approved the Sinovac shot after the country’s top clerical body deemed it halal this month, a critical seal of approval in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
Jakarta has secured about 330m doses of Covid-19 vaccines from Novavax, the World Health Organization’s Covax programme, BioNTech/Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca. Sinovac is supplying the most doses, with 125.5m, of which just 3m are ready for use and 1.2m have been distributed across the country.