Measles in eastern Indonesia’s Papua province has killed around 100 indigenous children this month although the disease is easily preventable with a safe and inexpensive vaccine.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said neglect of Papuan basic health rights is responsible while the Jakarta government blames the deaths in remote Asmat regency on nomadic lifestyles. Asmat children have been left out of national children’s vaccination programmes, the group said.
About 129,000 people live in Asmat, a swampy region criss-crossed by rivers that can only be accessed by a flight from Papua’s capital Jayapura followed by a helicopter and boat ride.
Asmat, like many areas in Papua, lacks proper health-care services for its residents and has a serious shortage of medics. Clinics often have no staff and medicines throughout the ethnically and culturally distinct provinces of Papua and West Papua, HRW said.
The resource-rich provinces, which constitute about 25 per cent of Indonesia’s landmass but only contain around 5 per cent of its population, generates massive tax revenue for Indonesia, with the Freeport-McMoRan’s Grasberg copper and gold mine delivering US$600 million in taxes per year.
But indigenous Papuans receive little benefit from Grasberg.
The archipelago’s poverty rates remain highest, in relative terms, in the provinces of Papua, West Papua and Maluku, all in the far east of Indonesia, according to Jakarta’s Statistics Agency.
Papua has the lowest life expectancy in Indonesia and the highest infant, child and maternal mortality rates.
The government increases health problems by restricting NGO access, including medical groups, such as Cordaid from the Netherlands.
Those restrictions are related to the prolonged ban on the foreign media access while a low-level pro-independence insurgency continues.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to health, Dainius Pūras, reported after visiting last year that he was “concerned about the health status of ethnic Papuans” and called for greater health investment.
President Joko Widodo has promised to improve health care in Papua and to allow international access to the troubled provinces. But his government has focused instead on physical infrastructural investment, including digging roads through Papuan rainforest.
HRW said: “To prevent the deaths of more children, Indonesia’s health ministry should set up an effective vaccination programme in Papua. Additionally, the government should recognise that international organisations – and allowing media to freely report in Papua – will bolster official efforts to identify and address gaps in Papua’s public health delivery systems.“
An Asmat Longhouse. Picture credit: Wikimedia