This opinion editorial was originally published for World Malaria Day in the April 25th, 2020 edition of the Jakarta Post.
“Success against malaria gives solutions for COVID-19”
By: Jonathan Tahir
Today is World Malaria Day, a day when we remind ourselves of a disease that has killed more people in history than any other.
As the world is focused on bringing the deadly COVID-19 pandemic under control, reflecting on the progress made in the fight against malaria gives us hope that we can solve the most difficult public health problems by working together.
Taking a closer look at the success and challenges of malaria elimination can also show us what needs to be done to beat COVID-19.
Like COVID-19, malaria once threatened communities across our entire nation. Our country’s size and remoteness put it in a position that few other nations face.
However, through smart investments in health systems, malaria testing and treatment, and community-level programs to prevent the spread of the disease, Indonesia has halved the number of malaria cases in ten years. It has been a team effort. Government, health organizations, funders, the private sector, and communities have all worked together to fight the disease.
While malaria is on the decline, it is still a deadly threat. In fact, Indonesia continues to have one of the highest malaria burdens in the region, with over 220,000 recorded malaria cases in 2018.
Eliminating malaria in Indonesia and across Asia by 2030 is achievable though, if we continue to fund and deliver the activities that have proven to be effective.
So how have we made so much progress in reducing malaria in Indonesia, and how are these strategies relevant to the fight against COVID-19?
First, we heavily invested in research and programs to make testing for malaria more accessible, faster, and more accurate. In controlling any communicable disease, it is vital to identify infected people and treat them to prevent further transmission. For malaria, this involves screening people in often remote areas where malaria is endemic.
Thankfully, wider efforts in the last decades to strengthen community-level health systems across Indonesia have greatly increased accessibility to low-cost malaria screening.
The fight against malaria has also been successful due to strong political resolve to eliminate the disease.
Our government has made malaria elimination a priority. In 2014, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo committed to eliminate malaria by 2030 alongside 17 other heads of government at the East Asia Summit.
Domestic funding for the disease has increased by 42 percent since 2012. This increase in resources, supported by international funders like the Global Fund, has paved way for the progress we see today. In a similar fashion, to beat COVID-19, we need to invest heavily. Not every country has the same means, so global solidarity has never been more important. Addressing the disease in every country is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the only way to suppress this global pandemic.
Finally, malaria elimination has been successful because communities are engaged and aware. Through local malaria programs, communities learn how to reduce malaria risk through actions like eliminating standing water and sleeping under bed-nets. Communities also learn about malaria symptoms and where to go to get tested and treated.
Efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic to teach people about handwashing, social distancing, and self-quarantine have been widespread, and it is up to all of us to be part of the solution.
So, as we observe World Malaria Day amidst the greatest pandemic of our lifetime, we can be optimistic that the challenges we face do have solutions.
However, greater investment in testing and treatment, continued government support, and the cooperation of everyday people are all needed to win against malaria and COVID-19. Beating these deadly diseases is possible if we all work together.
Jonathan Tahir is Co-chair of the Tahir Foundation, deputy chairman of Mayapada Group, chairman of Mayapada Healthcare, chairman of Forbes Indonesia and MYP Ltd. and an M2030 Champions Council member.