Smog from forest and peatland fires in Indonesia could complicate the country's efforts to battle the new coronavirus, as the government has no contingency plan for additional respiratory illness amid the ongoing pandemic.
Wiendra Waworuntu, director for communicable disease prevention and control at the Ministry of Health, said Friday that the symptoms of acute respiratory infection caused by smoke from the fires are similar to coronavirus symptoms.
A simultaneous surge in respiratory illness from the two causes could become a major headache for Indonesian health authorities. Research shows that "there is a correlation between high mortality rate and high level of pollution in an area impacted by COVID-19," Waworuntu said.
Haze from forest and land fires caused by illegal slash-and-burn farming practices, mostly for palm oil plantations, occurs annually in Indonesia.
As of Thursday, at least 765 hotspots have been detected in the country, although the number was lower than 1,222 a year earlier, according to local authorities.
This month, most areas in the archipelagic state "will enter into the beginning of the dry season, including the areas where forest and peatland fires usually occur," said Miming Saepudin, head of weather prediction and early warning at the Meteorological, Climatology and Geophysics Agency.
"We have predicted that the dry season will reach its peak in August, covering 64.9 percent of the country," Saepudin said.
Some experts fear the haze will hamper efforts to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic that has infected 13,112 people and killed 943 as of Friday.
The situation may get worse due to a possible shortage of N95 face masks. Currently, the high-grade masks can only be used by medical workers, while members of the public have been instructed to wear normal surgical masks.
But Waworuntu said N95 masks are also needed for people affected by smoke from forest fires, because ordinary masks will not be effective to filter the smoke.
"There may be scarcity of N95 masks in June, July and August when dry season reaches its peak, while we have to compete with other countries to get them," she said.
Moreover, "we haven't designed any contingency plan to deal with both acute respiratory infection caused by forest fires and COVID-19, while most human resources in health have been focused to deal with COVID-19," she added, noting the need for strategies to prevent a catastrophe.
In 2019, fires devastated more than 1.6 million hectares of land across the country, mostly on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, up from about 630,000 hectares in the previous year.
Last year's fires resulted in acute respiratory infection for about 900,000 people. The haze has impacted air quality not only in Indonesia, but also in Malaysia, Singapore and as far as Thailand and the Philippines.