JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's death toll from the novel coronavirus passed the 1,000 mark on Tuesday, even as authorities signalled they were poised to ease some social restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus in the Southeast Asian country.
Indonesia confirmed its first two cases of the virus on March 2, well behind most neighbours, but its fatality rate has since overtaken those of all its East Asian peers apart from China.
There were 16 new fatalities and 484 new infections, taking the country's total to 1,007 deaths and 14,749 cases, health ministry official Achmad Yurianto said on Tuesday.
Despite social restrictions scheduled to run until the end of May, the head of Indonesia’s coronavirus response taskforce Doni Monardo said on Tuesday that people under 45 would be permitted to return to work in designated sectors.
"Why we are suggesting heads of companies prioritize relatively young workers is due to the fact that those aged 60 and above have the highest mortality rate," Monardo told a briefing at the palace, noting data showed this group made up 45% of deaths while the 46-59 age group accounted for 40%.
Monardo said the rules on returning to work, intended to prevent mass layoffs in Southeast Asia’s largest economy, applied to 11 sectors including security and defence, health, food, finance, communication and logistics.
The Indonesian government has been criticised by epidemiologists for pushing to prematurely ease social restrictions without compelling evidence the country is flattening the coronavirus curve, or showing a slower rate of infection.
Last week, Indonesia’s finance minister said the coronavirus pandemic had set poverty-eradication efforts back a decade.
The government has been pushing to kickstart the economy and justified the move to encourage some people to return to work on the basis that young people are more resilient to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
"We realise very well that the group of 45 years and below are productive forces who have a high immunity to withstand this disease," said heath ministry spokesperson Yurianto.
The median age in Indonesia, a country of more than 160 million, is only about 30 years, according to the World Population Review.
The latest announcement, which comes days after transportation restrictions were also controversially relaxed, appeared to cause some confusion in the government.
Administrative and Bureaucratic Reforms Minister Tjahjo Kumolo said there was no plans to allow millions of Indonesians to return to work.
Meanwhile, President Joko Widodo called for a calibrated approach.
"The easing for PSBB (large scale social restrictions) should be carried out carefully and not in a hurry, all based on data from the field so that the decision is valid,” he said.
(Reporting by Nilufar Rizki; Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Ed Davies, Andrew Heavens and Bernadette Baum)