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Why Indonesia’s province nearest to Singapore struggles with Covid-19

The Riau Islands – the closest Indonesian province to Singapore, which includes popular tourist destinations Batam and Bintan – is experiencing a dramatic surge in Covid-19 cases following the celebration of Hari Raya in mid-May 2021.

An official checks the temperature of passengers at an international port in Batam, Riau Islands on January 28, 2020.

An official checks the temperature of passengers at an international port in Batam, Riau Islands on January 28, 2020.

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The Riau Islands — the closest Indonesian province to Singapore, which includes popular tourist destinations Batam and Bintan — is experiencing a dramatic surge in Covid-19 cases following the celebration of Hari Raya in mid-May 2021.

According to a national government report, Indonesia recorded a 53.4 per cent increase in the daily number of cases three weeks after Hari Raya compared to the days immediately beforehand. The spike was even higher last year which hit 80.5 per cent.

During the one-month period from May 15 to June 20, the province confirmed about 9,000 new cases — comprising 40 percent of the cumulative cases in the Riau Islands since March 25, 2020, a period of 15 months.

With an average of 80 per cent recovery rate and 2 per cent death rate, it leaves the province in a worrisome state with roughly 2,500 active cases being quarantined and hospitalised as of June 20.

In a pre-pandemic world, Singaporeans could travel to Batam and Bintan for shopping, a holiday and seafood culinary experiences at an affordable price.

However, border restrictions by the Singapore’s Government in place since late March 2020 severed one of Riau Islands province’s most vital travel links.

The border closure has taken a heavy toll on one of the province’s vital economic sectors — tourism — with a plunge of about 95 per cent in international tourists, who had mostly come from or through Singapore.

Both the Indonesian national and local government have been struggling to help the province recover ever since.

There are several reasons why the province, despite greater attention from the national government, has still been struggling to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The first is that Batam is the gateway for returning Indonesian migrant workers from Singapore and Malaysia.

The arrival polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-swab test on the Indonesian migrant workers in early May and mid-June detected around 1,000 positive cases.

A local newspaper report suggests that the PCR-swab sample from one of the returnees from Malaysia contains the new Covid-19 delta variant after laboratory investigation in Jakarta, though it was not clear whether the returnee was the index case among other returnees.

Due to the weak tracing capacity, one of the local government officials claimed that the new variant of virus has entered Batam via the returnees and has spread in quarantine facilities.

Another issue is related to the lack of compliance with health protocols.

These include people not wearing masks in public areas as well as cafés and restaurants not complying with basic health protocols such as ensuring visitors wear masks, keeping seats at a safe distance, and providing hand sanitiser or wash basins.

As a response, the local government has imposed a strict operating-hour policy for public places to close by 9pm as well as forced closures of business entities that fail to heed the warnings.

The absence of effective border restrictions also makes it difficult to control the viral spread.

Even though the provincial government tried to stop intra-provincial travel from May 6 to 17, enforcement was inadequate.

This has facilitated mobility both out of and into the province and the only safeguard is a requirement to submit a health document with either an internationally recognised PCR-swab test or the result of Indonesian-made Covid-19 breath analysers (GeNose).

The last two reasons for the spread of the virus are the most crucial: Inadequate quarantine facilities and the slow roll-out of vaccines.

Since March 2020, the province has relied on limited quarantine facilities, including the Special Hospital for Infection in Galang Island, and intensive care unit rooms in several public and private hospitals.

Only recently, the local government took the initiative to expand the quarantine facilities by opening the dormant Hajj Dormitory (Asrama Haji) in Batam as well as several resorts in Bintan for asymptomatic patients.

However, quarantined asymptomatic patients must stay in a space in which four to five beds are placed 1m apart with limited medical personnel and medication.

Patients are required to go home after a 10-day treatment without a PCR-swab test, meaning that there is a chance for those who are still positive for Covid-19 are allowed to go home.

The 10-day treatment rule is due to the Indonesian Ministry of Health guidelines indicating that these patients have recovered and will not transmit the virus to others.

The guidelines also specify that post-treatment PCR-swab test is compulsory only for those with severe symptoms and critical conditions.

More importantly, the slow progress of government vaccination for the targeted population has hampered efforts to achieve herd immunity.

As of June 13, the vaccination rate for those having received two doses just hit 23 per cent or about 320,000 out of the province's 1.4 million residents.

There has been an attempt by local private entities to provide private vaccination by procuring supplies from the central government. This has been hampered by the slow approval process.

Batam was one of the two points for the Singapore-Indonesia Reciprocal Green Lane (RGL) agreed in October last year for essential business travel, diplomatic travel, and urgent official travel, but the arrangement has been suspended since December.

Both the national and local government on the Indonesian side are trying to prepare Batam and Bintan to be part of travel bubbles with Singapore, but the vaccination roll-out on the ground remains lacking.

The recent visit of President Joko Widodo to the province however provides a glimmer of hope that the vaccination process will be expedited as he has promised.

The central government has announced that the Riau Islands will be fully vaccinated by November 2021.

Given these various challenges, Indonesia’s closest province to Singapore is indeed on a wing and a prayer.

Not only do the circumstances faced by the Riau Islands represent a microcosm of the overall Indonesian struggle against Covid-19, but they are also having a serious impact on the long-established relationship between Singapore and the province.

Even though strategic economic cooperation between Singapore and the province is still ongoing, the resumption of travel remains implausible.

The Indonesian government both at national and local level needs to accelerate vaccine roll-out, enhance health protocol enforcement in public areas, and provide proper quarantine facilities.



Dedi Dinarto is a research analyst with the Indonesia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Related topics

Indonesia Riau Islands Batam Bintan Covid-19 coronavirus

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