As Indonesia overtakes India as the new epicentre of Asia’s coronavirus pandemic, the Australian live export industry is becoming increasingly nervous about the emerging health crisis.
- A second wave of COVID-19 in Indonesia has seen daily cases rising to more than 50,000
- The Australian cattle industry is reporting a 27 per cent drop in exports on this time last year
- The Indonesian government extended restrictions until Sunday, locking down large parts of the country
A second wave fuelled by the spread of the more virulent Delta variant has seen daily cases rising to more than 50,000 a day.
This week Indonesia recorded a record 1,338 fatalities in a single day as the nation’s fragile health system continues to be overwhelmed.
It is a tragic situation that hits close to home for pastoral businesses in northern Australia, according to the Australian Livestock Exporter’s Council (ALEC).
Between the worsening COVID-19 crisis, high cattle prices and tightening domestic supply, cattle exports are down 27 per cent on the same time last year.
However, ALEC chief executive Mark Harvey-Sutton said of principal concern was the health and safety of its Indonesian colleagues in the supply chain.
“Our thoughts and prayers are genuinely with Indonesia at the moment.”
Cattle industry mourns losses
One of Australia’s largest pastoral businesses Consolidated Pastoral Company (CPC) has two feedlots in Lampung and Medan, with a combined capacity for 27,000 head of cattle.
CPC chief executive Troy Setter said despite vaccinating almost their entire 500–600 staff and having implemented strict COVID-safe protocols, the situation had become more challenging in recent weeks.
“We’ve had an increased number of staff get sick in the last couple of weeks and, unfortunately, we’ve had some losses of team members as well.
“It’s also really challenging for our team in Australia, we just feel absolutely helpless on what we can do to help.”
Cases surge during religious festival
The Indonesian government has relied primarily on Chinese-made Sinovac for its vaccine rollout but a growing number of those vaccinated are falling ill and dying.
Daily mortality rates are up to 10 times the numbers seen in early June, but official data is widely believed to be a severe underestimation due to poor contact tracing and low testing rates of about 74,000 per million people.
The COVID-19 surge has arrived at an important time on Indonesia’s religious calendar when Muslims across the country are ordinarily celebrating the Islamic festival Eid al-Adha.
Mr Setter said ordinarily during this time there were up to 1.8 million animals processed, including cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo, but slaughter was predicted to be down by about10 per cent this year.
“We’re now seeing a drop in spending power of the average Indonesian consumer and that’s a real challenge.
“[Particularly] with higher cattle prices, higher feed prices, as well as lockdowns and shutdowns of restaurants where our product usually goes.”
Impacts on demand for Aussie beef?
So as the pandemic worsens for Australia’s largest live export market and restrictions grip parts of the country, what will it mean for food security in Indonesia and demand for Australian beef?
Mr Setter said the way the pandemic was handled over the coming weeks would be crucial.
“I think for us the priority is certainly the protection and care for our own people … but in terms of sales, it is a case of wait and see,” he said.
Indonesian lockdown extended
On Tuesday, President Joko Widodo extended Indonesia’s partial lockdown restrictions until Sunday, July 25 to contain the surge in COVID-19 cases.
Indonesia Institute founder Ross Taylor said it was a distinct policy shift for the Indonesian government but there were many social and economic factors that made stay-at-home orders complex.
“Particularly when you consider within the island of Java alone there’s 150 million people, of which 45 million people of those are what we call informal workers,” he said.
“So much of what we sell to Indonesia into the feedlots … is very bound up in supplying the lower socio-economic groups through the wet markets for their daily nutritional needs.
“It’s all very well to say to lock down and stop trades like this temporarily, but it has a direct impact on a community’s ability to feed themselves.”
Animal welfare compliance concerns
The explosion of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia comes at a time when there is already heightened scrutiny on the live cattle trade.
Last Friday, ALEC was made aware of a complaint to the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment over the non-compliant handling and slaughter of cattle at seven Indonesian abattoirs.
A spokesperson from the department said the report received from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on June 25 was being assessed and the outcome of the investigation would be published once complete.
The ABC understands Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) management plans have been submitted to the department outlining corrective actions.
Mr Harvey-Sutton said the Australian live export industry was working closely with importers to ensure high animal welfare standards were being maintained during the pandemic.
“We’ve been talking to the Indonesian importers over the last week or so about this non-compliance and they’ve made it very clear to us they are just as committed to upholding standards,” he said.
“The current situation with COVID in Indonesia has only increased the importance of food security for the Indonesian people [and] it is vital we uphold supply of cattle for export to our valued partner.”