A measles outbreak in Indonesia’s Papua province has killed an estimated 100 indigenous Papuan children this month. As measles is easily prevented with a safe and inexpensive vaccine, these deaths should never have happened.
The death toll underscores the Indonesian government’s neglect of Papuans’ basic health rights. The government blames these deaths, clustered in remote Asmat regency, on the nomadic lifestyle of Papuans there. But it has not explained why Asmat children were left out of national vaccination programs for measles and other deadly childhood illnesses.
Asmat, like many areas in Papua, lacks adequate healthcare services for its residents and has a serious doctor shortage. In my frequent travels throughout Papua and West Papua provinces over the past decade, I have routinely encountered clinics without doctors and doctors who had no medicines. That health service deficit is especially pernicious given that the resource-rich region generates massive tax revenue for Indonesia’s government, with the Freeport-McMoRan’s Grasberg copper mine alone delivering US$600 million in taxes annually.
But health indicators suggest little of that money trickles back to indigenous Papuans. Papua has the lowest life expectancy in Indonesia and the highest infant, child, and maternal mortality rates. The government compounds its health delivery inadequacies by severely restricting access of international nongovernmental organizations to Papua. They include groups that provide much-needed healthcare services, such as the Dutch aid organization Cordaid. Those restrictions are related to a decades-long ban on access of foreign journalists and other independent observers to the region, the site of a low-level pro-independence insurgency, on overblown security reasons.
After visiting Papua last April, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to health, Dainius Pūras, said he was “concerned about the health status of ethnic Papuans,” and called for greater government attention and resources to improve their health services. Although President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in December 2015 vowed to improve health care in Papua, his government has focused almost exclusively on physical infrastructure investment in the region.
To prevent the deaths of more children, Indonesia’s health ministry should set up an effective vaccination program in Papua. Additionally, the government should recognize that international organizations – and allowing media to freely report in Papua – will bolster official efforts to identify and address gaps in Papua’s public health delivery systems. Asmat’s indigenous children should be neglected no longer.