Indonesian President Joko Widodo at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

Indonesia’s capital Jakarta is the world’s most polluted city, according to a new study, and the country’s president may have the cough to prove it.

Ministers in the Southeast Asian country confirmed this week that President Joko Widodo had been battling a cough for weeks and suggested it could be related to worsening air pollution in the city of 10 million.

The news came just days after the Swiss company IQAir released data showing that Jakarta’s air quality had deteriorated in recent weeks to become the worst in the world.

“President Joko Widodo has asked that there be concrete steps (to tackle air pollution) within one week. He has been coughing for almost four weeks and said he has never felt this way,” Indonesia’s Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy Sandiaga Uno told reporters after a parliamentary meeting between ministers in Jakarta on Monday.

Uno said doctors were still diagnosing the cause of Widodo’s cough but added that it might be related to the worsening air quality, reported CNN affiliate CNN Indonesia.

The following day Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin also noted the president was battling a cough and said his ministry was stepping up tests in the general population to see if there had been an increase in lung and respiratory diseases like asthma in highly polluted areas.

“We are monitoring the situation,” Budi told reporters.

“All reports about the impact of air pollution on public health will be coordinated to the related ministries and official agencies for evaluation,” he added.

The Jakarta skyline on August 11.

From bad to worst

Air pollution has long plagued the Greater Jakarta area, with factories, coal-fired power plants and traffic congestion all contributing to the smog, according to experts.

In 2019, a group of 32 residents launched a civil lawsuit against Widodo – widely known as Jokowi – and several members of his cabinet, alleging he had failed to take action to control air pollution and uphold their right to clean air.

They won a historic victory two years later when the Central Jakarta District Court ruled in their favor. It said the government had violated the country’s environmental protection laws and called on top officials to establish a national ambient air quality standard along with other measures.

But in recent weeks air quality in the capital has become particularly bad, deteriorating to the worst in the world, according to data provided by IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company.

On August 9, Jakarta topped its list of polluted cities after registering “unhealthy” air pollution levels nearly every day, the company said. It had consistently ranked among the 10 most polluted cities globally since May, IQAir said.

On Monday Widodo chaired a cabinet meeting to discuss the worsening air pollution and called for urgent government intervention.

He blamed the pollution on “excessive road traffic, a long dry season and energy sources – mainly those using coal” and suggested measures such as emission tests on cars and encouraging people to work from home as ways to ease the problem.

He also said a pollution tax was being considered.

“Over the last week, the air quality in the Greater Jakarta Area has been very, very bad,” Widodo said. “Supervision must be carried out in the industrial and power generation sectors and we must also educate the public (to reduce emissions),” he added.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno said the government was looking at “concrete steps” to improve Jakarta’s air quality in the long term.

“If we look at Beijing’s success in doing that, I am very confident that with the collaboration of local governments and businesses, we can also improve air quality in Jakarta – it will have a long term impact on public health,” he said, referring to China’s success in improving air quality in its capital.

Skyscrapers seen through Jakarta's smog on August 11.

Experts welcomed the government’s stance.

“Air pollution is a serious problem in Southeast Asia,” said political analyst Bridget Welsh from the University of Nottingham.

“While there have been improvements in Jakarta (in areas like) public transportation, these need to be ratcheted up along with better enforcement against (fossil fuel) burning and regulated vehicle use,” Welsh said.

She said that while the government planned to relocate the capital to Nusantara, in East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo, this move was still years away and would not solve the pollution problem.

“Moving to a new capital will only offset the issue temporarily,” Welsh said. “The health costs of Indonesia’s air pollution are serious and cannot be underestimated.”