PAPUA: “William” is refusing to take a coronavirus vaccine because he fears Indonesia’s military will use the country’s inoculation program to poison him and wipe out his fellow Papuans.
Decades of conflict, racism and human rights abuses are fueling Covid conspiracy theories among his neighbors at a time when their breakaway region is facing a renewed threat from the pandemic.
“I won’t take a vaccine if it’s brought here by Indonesia,” William, who asked not to use his real name, told Agence France-Presse. He said he would gladly sign up for any dose administered directly by the World Health Organization.
“But (many people) here are worried that if the jabs come through Indonesia they’ll be replaced with some other chemical substance that will kill us,” he added.
There is no evidence of a genocidal plan by Indonesia, which has drafted the armed forces to help run a nationwide vaccination drive including in Papua.
But a widespread hatred of the military runs deep in the region, located on the eastern edge of the Southeast Asian archipelago nation and just north of Australia.
Security forces have been accused of committing atrocities against Papuan civilians during decades of fighting between a rebel independence movement and government troops.
Much of this conflict has centered around William’s hometown of Timika, near the world’s biggest gold mine – a potent symbol for Papuans of the region’s exploitation and environmental devastation.
Indonesia – as with many countries – has found its efforts to fight the pandemic hamstrung by both limited vaccine supplies and hesitancy driven by the spread of online disinformation.
The spread of unfounded rumors in Papua mirrors a similar phenomenon across the border in Papua New Guinea, an independent nation with stronger cultural and historical ties to Papua than the rest of Indonesia.
Social media posts there falsely claimed to show evidence of locals being forcibly vaccinated in a mass medical trial and even suggested that the vaccine campaign as part of a racial genocide plot.
Papua’s long history of conflict and mistrust has created a wide audience for fearful rumors. “The conflict has been going on for so long (that)… whatever the central government is doing will appear suspicious,” said Adriana Elisabeth, a Papua expert at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.
Appeals by local activists have done little to lift low vaccination numbers among Papuans, which stand at fewer than 30,000 – less than 1 percent of the region’s population.
Papua has sailed through earlier waves of the pandemic relatively unscathed with its 40,000 confirmed infections a tiny fraction of Indonesia’s total.
But it is now threatened by the highly contagious Delta variant that has wreaked havoc elsewhere in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia, and its underfunded health system is ill-equipped to navigate a crisis.