BEKASI, Indonesia — By the thousands, they sleep in hallways, tents and cars, gasping for air as they wait for beds in overcrowded hospitals that may not have oxygen to give them. Others see hospitals as hopeless, even dangerous, and take their chances at home.

Wherever they lie, as COVID-19 steals their breath away, their families engage in a frantic, daily hunt for scarce supplies of life-giving oxygen.

Indonesia has become the new epicenter of the pandemic, surpassing India and Brazil to become the country with the world’s highest count of new infections. The surge is part of a wave across Southeast Asia, where vaccination rates are low but countries had, until recently, contained the virus relatively well​. Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand are also facing their largest outbreaks yet and have imposed new restrictions.

In Indonesia, cases and deaths have skyrocketed in the past month as the highly contagious delta variant sweeps through densely populated Java island, as well as Bali. In some regions, the coronavirus has pushed the medical system past its limits, although hospitals are taking emergency steps to expand capacity.

On Thursday, Indonesian authorities reported nearly 57,000 new cases, the highest daily total yet — seven times as many as a month earlier. On Friday, they reported a record 1,205 deaths, bringing the country’s official toll from the pandemic to more than 71,000.

But some health experts say those figures vastly understate the spread in Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populous nation, because testing has been limited. Dicky Budiman, an Indonesian public health researcher at Griffith University in Australia, estimates that the true number of cases is three to six times higher.


In India, where the delta variant was first identified, daily cases peaked at more than 414,000 in May, but they have since dropped to about 40,000.

Despite Indonesia’s mushrooming caseload, officials say they have the situation under control.

“If we talk about the worst-case scenario, 60,000 or slightly more, we are pretty OK,” said Luhut Pandjaitan, a senior minister assigned by President Joko Widodo to handle the crisis. “We are hoping that it will not reach 100,000, but even so, we are preparing now for if we ever get there.”

Only about 15% of Indonesia’s 270 million people have received a dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and just 6% are fully inoculated.